The very eastern edge of the Midway Plaisance is the proposed site of the Obama Presidential Center garage. (map courtesy of the Cultural Landscape Foundation)

Obama Center designers sticking with Midway Plaisance for garage site

SHARE Obama Center designers sticking with Midway Plaisance for garage site
SHARE Obama Center designers sticking with Midway Plaisance for garage site

WASHINGTON — Despite some community concerns, the Obama Foundation is sticking to its proposal to build a garage on a patch of the historic Midway Plaisance, across from the future Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, officials told the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday.

But plans for a basketball court, BBQ grills and picnic tables on top of the structure have been dropped.

Instead, in one of several design changes made to address potential neighborhood issues, the landscaping on top of the two-story garage will be more pastoral, with a small playground for children, the Obama Center landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh told me.

“It is a park with a garage under it that we are making,” Van Valkenburgh said.

When the garage location was announced in August, it triggered a controversy because the Midway — the narrow strip of land connecting Jackson and Washington parks — is an integral part of the South Side parks system conceived in 1871 by the famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and his partner Calvert Vaux.

Jackson Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in December 1972.

The Obama Center will cover about 20 acres of Jackson Park, and critics of the garage plan say that’s where the taking of public lands should stop — enough is enough.

The garage site is at the eastern edge of the Midway, fronting on Stony Island between 59th and 60th.

The foundation does not want an underground garage at the Center. A big reason is to spark linked economic development that could only happen with a separate building — where people will have to take a short walk to the Center — providing potential customers for future restaurants or stores.

I talked with Van Valkenburgh and Michael Strautmanis, the foundation’s Vice President for Civic Engagement, on Wednesday before an invitation-only briefing about the garage with local groups and other stakeholders.

The featured speakers were Strautmanis, Van Valkenburgh and the architects, Tod Williams, with his partner/wife Billie Tsien and Dina Griffin.

Williams said in November moving the 450-car garage was under consideration. “We are wondering whether this parking should exist here,” he said, pointing to the proposed parking structure on a model.

“Or whether it should be pressed further into the ground . . . or whether it comes back to the site here,” Williams said as he gestured towards the Center in Jackson Park. “So we are waiting to hear from communities as to what they want.”

Keeping the garage on the Midway was “not a decision made lightly,” Strautmanis said.

Van Valkenburgh outlined some of the design changes for the garage:

• The concept is to camouflage the structure with all the sides covered with landscaped slopes.

• The garage entrances will be closer to Stony Island to cut down the walking time to the Center from four or five minutes to under three minutes.

• Buses will not be staged at the Midway site.

• The plans call for the two-story facility and landscaped top to be six feet higher than the nearby “L” tracks in order to allow views of the Midway and Lake Michigan.

I asked Van Valkenburgh how his design honors Olmsted.

“I think that the way it honors the intent of the original Olmsted plan is with a strong landscape connection between Jackson Park and the beginning of the rest of the Midway,” he said.

Olmsted, he said, “wanted a very strong spatial connection that draws you back and forth between the two parks.”

Strautmanis stressed that hearing from the various groups is “an important part of the process. We’re not done. We’re going to get the feedback from today and we will continue to refine, update and adjust as we move forward.”

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