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Feds launch review of Obama Presidential Center impact on Jackson Park

Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be built in nearby Jackson Park, during a gathering at the South Shore Cultural Center on May 3, 2017 in Chicago. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Not so fast.

Before any work starts in Jackson Park — listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 — to build the Obama Presidential Center, revamp roadways or develop a PGA level golf course, federal reviews have to take place, and they kick off on Friday.

This federal role has gotten little attention, with most of the focus, when it comes to approvals, on City Hall, the Chicago Plan Commission and the Chicago Park District — all entities where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has the power to force an outcome.

This new phase brings in federal and possibly State of Illinois actors, and will strengthen the hand of local and national organizations wanting to manage the changes that are in the pipeline for Jackson Park.

To be taken into account: park history, design legacy, cultural landscape, architectural, archaeological and ecological features and how things will look and mesh with the surrounding community.


These federal reviews mark “the first time to think holistically about the park,” Charles Birnbaum, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Cultural Landscape Foundation based in Washington, told the Chicago Sun-Times on Sunday.

There is a kickoff meeting Friday from 10 a.m. to noon at the South Shore YMCA, 6330 S. Stony Island Ave., to study potential impacts on the historic park — and most important — what to do to minimize and mitigate any adverse impact.

That includes highly controversial proposals to close Cornell and Marquette Drives as they flow through the park.

The Obama Center will consume more than 20 acres of Jackson Park. Last August, the Obama Foundation stirred another controversy with plans to build a garage for the center on a patch of the Midway Plaisance — also public land.

Though the Obama Foundation does not like to be associated with the controversial proposed merger of the golf courses at Jackson Park and the South Shore Cultural Center, when it comes to dealing with the historic Jackson Park, designed in 1871 by the famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, all the elements are related.

The lead agency in this new chapter is the Federal Highway Administration, working with City Hall’s transportation and planning and development departments, plus several State of Illinois agencies.

The two main federal laws that are now triggered:

• The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The law mandates a determination by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation — an independent federal agency based in Washington — if a project has a negative effect on historic properties, of which Jackson Park is one because it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

A variety of groups have been invited by the city’s planning and development department to have a seat at this table as “consulting parties” for what is often called a “Section 106” review, a reference to a portion of the 1966 law.

• The National Environmental Policy Act — nicknamed “NEPA” — which calls for an environmental assessment.

Margaret Schmid, co-founder of Jackson Park Watch, told the Sun-Times, while they are supportive of the Obama Center in the community, “the Section 106 and NEPA reviews offer a much needed chance for new eyes to take a fresh look at these expansive proposals to determine whether and how the Obama Presidential Center can best coexist with Jackson Park and the Community.”

City Hall spokesman Adam Collins called the federal review “routine” and said it is “another step in our continuing work to break ground on the Obama Presidential Center, deliver significant economic growth on Chicago’s South Side, and revitalize Jackson Park.”

These federal reviews may not be all that routine.

Said Birnbaum, Jackson Park “is at the tipping point. Altogether the confiscation of 20-plus acres for the Obama Presidential Center, golf course consolidation and expansion, new roads, impacts on the lakefront, loss of historic trees, and a parking garage at the Midway, result in a massive adverse effect on the National Register of Historic Places designated park.”