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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Obama Center Federal Review ‘Far From Complete’ As Stakeholders Remain Divided

A final plan to address the Obama Center's adverse effects on Jackson Park is expected "sometime this fall," but that "is not a hard-and-fast answer," a spokesman said.

A north-facing rendering of the Obama Presidential Center campus in Jackson Park.
The Obama Foundation
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HYDE PARK — As a polarizing review of the planned Obama Presidential Center’s impact on Jackson Park nears the end of its third year, officials say an agreement to address any negative effects the center would have on the park is still a long way off.

The so-called Section 106 review process, ongoing since 2017, has found the Obama Center’s construction would affect the historic nature of Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance. To address these concerns, a draft agreement released July 9 calls for:

  • The city to file new National Register of Historic Places nominations for Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance.
  • Restoration plans for the Statue of the Republic and the English Comfort Station on the western edge of the park.
  • A public review process around a new play area at the east end of the Midway Plaisance. The play area is part of a federally-required plan to replace Jackson Park land lost to the Obama Center.
  • Plans for public education on the history of Jackson Park and the replacement of native trees that would be lost during the center’s construction.
  • Reports on the existing conditions in Jackson Park and a “long-term preservation strategy” for the park.

But those who need to sign off on the agreement — including the Federal Highway Administration, the Illinois State Historic Preservation Officer and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation — are still hashing out their differences.

“We want all of the parties to at least agree. … We’re not there yet,” Highway Administration spokesman Doug Hecox said. “The conversation is still well in hand and the Section 106 process is far from complete.”

The release and signing of a final agreement is expected “sometime this fall,” but that “is not a hard-and-fast answer,” Hecox said.

In general, the groups brought together to complete the Obama Center review been bitterly divided, based on interviews with those involved and transcripts from their most recent meeting.

While community members have been part of the process, their approval is not required for an agreement to go into effect.

At least nine of the 88 community groups brought on to review the Center’s plans have voiced concerns with the review process. Among their concerns are that officials have taken too narrow a view of the adverse effects to Jackson Park and ways to avoid or minimize them.

Their most recent official comments on the review process are available only because they chose to self-publish. Others filed before last month’s deadline are being reviewed ahead of the revised draft agreement’s release but have not been made public.

In the years since the review began, new challenges to constructing the site in Jackson Park have arisen, said Jack Spicer, a preservationist with the Hyde Park Historical Society and member of Jackson Park Watch.

Among the new concerns Spicer noted are the coronavirus pandemic, which could reduce the number of tourists the Obama Center attracts, and rising lake levels, which could impact crucial aspects of the project, like an underground parking garage.

The review process has not adequately addressed these challenges and the potential for additional adverse effects, Spicer said, with city officials and developers instead focusing on defending their chosen construction site in Jackson Park.

“There has been a long bureaucratic process, but it has not been credible in terms of dealing with the adverse effects,” Spicer said. “We’re concerned that the time, attention and money being committed to the [Obama Center] are diverting attention from the other really important issues.”

Jackson Park Watch, Friends of the Parks and Preservation Chicago are among the groups that have suggested moving the Center out of Jackson Park.

Federal Highway Administration officials say they have addressed concerns about the park by moving the center’s parking structure underground and preserving the English Comfort Station. But the agency is not responsible for deciding where the Obama Center should ultimately go.

“Local planning decisions, such as where to locate the Obama Presidential Center,” are not subject to federal review, FHA officials said.

Representatives of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, DuSable Museum of African American History, South Shore Works and other stakeholders supported the draft agreement during the July webinar.

The dissenters “want to put [century-old] designs and assumed intentions of designers ahead of the communities that [the Obama Center] will benefit,” said Perri Irmer, president and CEO of the DuSable Museum. Irmer supports the agreement.

“The notion that using 19.5 acres of a park that’s in excess of 500 acres for the Obama Presidential Center is giving up parkland is interesting to me,” said Carol Adams, co-convener of South Shore Works. “I don’t think it’s giving up land; I think it’s using land … for a very elevated purpose, for something that we have been wanting to see happen for a very long time.”

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