Obama Presidential Center Would Have ‘Adverse Impact’ on Historic Jackson Park, Federal Review Concludes
Fran Spielman, Chicago Sun Times, July 30, 2019
Construction of the $500 million Obama Presidential Center will have an “adverse impact” on historic Jackson Park that must be mitigated, a federal review has concluded.
In a report triggered by Jackson Park’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the Federal Highway Administration homed in on the negative impact the four-building complex would have on the majestic Midway Plaisance and the Jackson Park Historic Landscape District.
The project would diminish the “the historic property’s overall integrity by altering historic, internal spatial divisions that were designed as a single entity” by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, the FHA concluded.
It also concludes “size and scale of new buildings” would “diminish the intended prominence of the Museum of Science and Industry building and alter the overall composition and design intent of balancing park scenery with specific built areas.”
“The combined changes diminish the sense of a particular period of time within the historic property and impact the integrity of feeling,” according to the report. The project would, therefore, alter “characteristics of the historic property that qualify it for inclusion in the National Register” and require “deviating from the simple formality of open space that reflects the historic design principle of informal symmetry and balance in design.”
The finding puts pressure on the Obama Foundation to find a way to “resolve adverse effects” and turns up the heat on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to order the foundation to make those changes.
“The Obama Foundation has yet to show any interest in compromising on any of this. It may take [Lightfoot] to bring them to the table,” said Margaret Schmid, co-president of Jackson Park Watch.
City Hall is prepared to take on some of the responsibility for addressing the needs of South Side residents affected by the Obama Center, the mayor said.
“We’re not going to sit back passively and just be the facilitator or the conduit by which city approvals, licensing and so forth gets approved,” she said.
“It is a big honor and opportunity for us to have this presidential center coming to Chicago and particularly for the South Side. And I want to use that opportunity to make catalytic change in the trajectory of the quality of life for people in those neighborhoods.”
Shortly before leaving office, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as Obama’s first White House chief of staff, pushed through a revised master agreement for the Obama Presidential Center to lease 19.3 acres of city land to the Obama Foundation for 99 years for the token price of $10.
The land transfer was contingent on the Obama Foundation’s ability to raise enough money to build the center and establish an endowment to cover maintenance and operations.
Schmid said the Obama Center “could be redesigned to be compatible” with Jackson Park. But it would require shrinking a 23-story building to a size “no taller” than the Museum of Science and Industry; maintaining “as many mature trees as possible;” and keeping Cornell Drive open and making it four lanes throughout, but slowing it down to end the threat of traffic overflow to surrounding neighborhoods.”