Obama Center-related construction in Jackson Park stopped by City Hall

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The grounds being cleared for the construction of The Barack Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, across from the Hyde Park Academy High School. | Rick Majewski/For the Sun-Times.

WASHINGTON – The city and Chicago Park District on Monday announced a halt to Obama Presidential Center-related construction in Jackson Park after moving ahead while crucial federal reviews of the project were still ongoing.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported in August that the park district was cutting down trees in Jackson Park despite a federal lawsuit, city and federal approvals pending, and a pledge from the Obama Foundation CEO to keep trees intact until the permitting process is complete.

Given the controversy over the tree cutting and federal agencies becoming more active in reviews, the city at the beginning of September decided to slow down construction of a new track field – needed because the proposed Obama Center will be taking over land where an existing field is located.

The city decision to stop the work came after a Sept. 11 meeting with the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration.

City Hall disclosed on Monday that the Chicago Department of Transportation declined to grant a permit to move utilities on the site while discussions with federal agencies were taking place.

“The Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago began construction on the new track & field in Jackson Park in the sincere belief and understanding that the work was appropriate, prudent and in conformance with federal law,” the city’s deputy communications director, Shannon Breymaier, said in a statement.

Referring to Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) whose ward includes Jackson Park, Breymaier continued, “However, in light of the concerns expressed by the federal agencies, and in consultation with Alderman Hairston, out of an abundance of caution and to allay any doubts about the intentions of the city in respect to the ongoing federal reviews, the federal agencies have been informed that the Chicago Park District will stop construction until dialogue with the federal agencies confirms that resumption of work is appropriate.

“The only continuing work on the site at this time will consist of demobilization activities, which may continue for several days and is necessary to ensure site security and public safety,” she said.

The federal reviews are taking place because the proposed Obama Center is being built in Jackson Park, designed by the famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and listed on the federal National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Plans to close Cornell and Marquette drives as the roadways run through the park, plus other related road projects, require a review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act.

The National Park Service is overseeing the NEPA review, and the Federal Highway Administration is the lead for the historic preservation review.

Here are some clues to explain the timing:

The City Council still has to approve an ordinance finalizing the use agreement between the foundation and the city. Even though 40 trees have been cut down – the city said 11 of them were dead – it would make things worse to ask aldermen to vote for the project while work was still ongoing.

Halting the construction for now may make the use of Jackson Park for the Obama Center less of a target in newly spawned mayoral campaigns.

The statement about stopping construction came out hours before NEPA was hosting a public information community meeting Monday night at the South Shore Cultural Center.

A hearing is set for Sept. 20 on a motion made by parks activists who filed the federal lawsuit aimed at blocking the center from being built in Jackson Park.

The narrow matter at issue in the motion is whether City Hall lawyers misled the court in asserting there was no connection between construction of the new athletic field and the Obama Center development.

There is a connection. The Obama Foundation gave the park district $3.5 million to build the new track to replace the existing track. Two baseball diamonds are being razed for the new track field.

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