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Federal Review Finds Obama Presidential Center Will Have ‘Adverse Impact’ On Jackson Park

The finding could further delay the construction of the $500 million center designed by former President Barack Obama to house his presidential library.

Jackson Park is a work of art, and its tranquility shouldn't be overshadowed by the Obama Presidential Center, Preservation Chicago argues.
Eric Allix Rogers
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WOODLAWN — Plans to build the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park will have an “adverse impact” on the park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to a federal review released Monday.

The finding could further delay the construction of the $500 million center designed by former President Barack Obama to house his presidential library. The foundation also promises to transform the South Side by attracting tourists — wallets at the ready — and creating hundreds of jobs.

The proposed center would include a four-building campus, underground parking facility, plaza, play areas, pedestrian and bicycle paths and landscaped open space. But the federal review under the National Historic Preservation Act found the Obama Presidential Center would diminish “the historic property’s overall integrity by altering historic, internal spatial divisions that were designed as a single entity” by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. 

Credit: Obama Foundation
A night view rendering of the Obama Presidential Center.

The review, formally known as a Section 106 Assessment of Effects under the National Historic Preservation Act, studied the center’s potential impact on three dozen historic properties, and found it would have “an adverse effect” on the Jackson Park Historic Landscape District and Midway Plaisance.  

“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 review. “The changes impact how Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance reflect conscious decisions made by the Olmsted firm in determining the organization, forms, patterns of circulation, relationships between major features, arrangement of vegetation, and views.”

Those changes to Jackson Park would alter the “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,” according to the review.

Credit: Obama Foundation
A rendering of the park land in the Obama Presidential Library plan.

The release of the report triggers a 30-day comment period, after which the findings will be finalized and an effort started to “resolve adverse effects,” according to a letter released by the Federal Highway Administration, which conducted the review. That process will likely result in a memorandum of agreement to resolve the issues, according to a statement from city planning officials.

“The city is committed to the long-term preservation of Jackson Park and mitigating adverse effects to area historic properties,” city planning officials said in a statement.

An open house to discuss the findings and gather feedback will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St. In addition, feedback on the results of the federal review can be sent to until Aug. 30.

In response to the findings of the federal review, the Obama Foundation released a statement promising to work with members of the community.

“Jackson Park is a majestic place with a rich history that we have embraced throughout our design process,” according to the foundation. “We look forward to hearing from the community about ways we can continue to work together to honor the history of Jackson Park and bring the Obama Presidential Center to Chicago’s South Side.”

The center had been scheduled to break ground next year and open in 2022. 

The City Council approved the master agreement, use agreement and environmental agreement between the Obama Foundation and the city in November. The agreement turns over 19.3 acres of city land to the foundation for 99 years for the nominal cost of $10. The city will own the center once it is built, according to the agreement.

Credit: Obama Foundation
A rendering of some of the proposed park land at the Obama Presidential Library.

That agreement includes plans to close the southern portion of Midway Plaisance Drive and Cornell Drive and widen south Stony Island Avenue and the northern portion of Midway Plaisance Drive. It also calls for the installation of barrier walls and stop lights on Hayes Drive.

The state budget approved in May 2018 included $172 million to cover the cost of closing the roads through Jackson Park to make way for the center.

The federal review found that the proposed changes to the Midway Plaisance, the development of the site for the center and certain roadway closures would have a “negative effect on the historic landscape.”

In addition, the reconfiguration of Hayes Drive and the changes along Marquette Drive and Cornell Drive “deviate from the historic design and have primarily negative effects,” according to the review.

The federal report also found that the design for the center would alter the park’s balance between open space and buildings, and plans for a play area on the Midway Plaisance would “alter the setting and feeling of the historic Cheney Goode Memorial.”

“The size and scale of new buildings within the historic district 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,” according to the review.

The review also objected to the realignment of the intersection of Hayes Drive with Richards Drive, finding that it was not consistent with the Secretary of the Interior standards because “the new design of the roadway bypasses the Statue of the Republic that is the focal point of the historic intersection.”

“Rising above a circular traffic island, the statue marks the center of the triangular intersection of Hayes Drive and Richards Drive and commemorates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in 1918,”  according to the federal review. “The historic design is arranged to highlight the statue as the central focal point of surrounding roads and position the monument to be viewed from vehicles or at a distance from walks. The relationship between viewers and the statue is balanced by distance and speed.”

Plans for a pedestrian plaza near the landmark statue alter “the historic character of the design,”  according to the federal review. “The realignment will introduce visual elements that diminish the integrity [of] the Statue of the Republic.”

However, the federal review found that changes proposed to Lake Shore Drive as well as plans for expanded paths for pedestrians and bicyclists, including refuge islands and underpasses, would not have adverse impacts on the park’s historic character. 

In addition, plans to close roadways within Jackson Park would not significantly increase traffic volumes along Lake Shore Drive, east 67th Street, east 56th Street, South Shore Drive and roads north and south of the Midway Plaisance, according to the federal review.

Plans to realign the intersection of Hayes Drive and Cornell Drive and change the route of Hayes Drive between Richards Drive and Lake Shore Drive is consistent with standards set by the federal government, according to the review. 

Proposed changes to Stony Island Avenue also do not create an adverse effect in the area around the park by adding traffic noise, according to the federal review.