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A federal agency’s findings don’t mean a red light for the Obama Center—but caution is warranted

The findings provide all the more reason why the Obama Presidential Foundation, its architects and the Lightfoot administration must get this project right.

The OPC from the South West, showing how the Museum Building, Forum Building, and Library Building will surround a public plaza. The Center is oriented to the neighborhood just west across Stony Island Avenue and extends a welcome to the community, inviting all to come learn, exchange ideas and stories, and play. | Obama Presidential Center
The OPC from the South West, showing how the Museum Building, Forum Building, and Library Building will surround a public plaza. The Center is oriented to the neighborhood just west across Stony Island Avenue and extends a welcome to the community, inviting all to come learn, exchange ideas and stories, and play. | Obama Presidential Center

At first glance, the federal government’s finding last week that the Obama Presidential Center would have an “adverse effect” on Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance might seem like a blow against plans to build the complex on this pair of historic landscapes.

But a deeper dive shows that the Washington agency that oversaw the Obama project’s review, the Federal Highway Administration, is not troubled enough to halt millions of dollars in federal road funds to support the project.

So the Obama Presidential Center remains a “go” with the feds, for now.

We continue to believe that Jackson Park is an acceptable location for the Obama Center. As far as we’re concerned, that debate is over.

But this latest review — triggered because the project is being built in one of America’s most historic and storied parks — brings into focus the gardens, trees, landscaping and original design intent that likely will be altered or even lost to make room for the complex. The message is clear: The Obama Presidential Foundation, its architects and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration had better get this right.

Completed in 1893 and filled with lagoons, ponds, gardens and trees, 500-acre Jackson Park began life as the picturesque fairgrounds for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Midway Plaisance, a mile-long sunken greenspace that begins at Washington Park and runs east through the southern edge of the University of Chicago, connects to Jackson Park’s northern end, near 59th Street.

What could be lost?

The center would occupy a 20-acre portion of the park between 59th and 63rd streets between Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive. According to the federal review, construction crews will have to rip out a cluster of 700 trees, plus assorted landscapes that were planted in 1980 and 1981 under a federal grant program. The losses also will include an outdoor track-and-field facility near 62nd and Stony Island, a picnic grove and the Women’s Garden, a perennial garden designed in 1934.

In addition, as part of the plan, the city would widen Stony Island between 59th Place and 67th Street, and add a southbound lane to Lake Shore Drive between Hayes and 57th Streets, surrendering nearly a mile of parkland and open space in the process.

According to the report, the city plans to mitigate each of the proposed losses. For instance, Cornell Drive would be replaced by new parkland, and new trees and landscapes would be planted on the eastern tip of Midway Plaisance between the Metra embankment and Stony Island where the boulevard connects to Jackson Park.

The federal government doesn’t bring the hammer down on the project in this report, but it does spell out what it believes to be the center's negative impact against the park.

The planned changes, the report states, “will have an adverse effect to Jackson Park Historic Landscape District and Midway Plaisance because it will alter, directly and indirectly, characteristics of the historic property that qualify it for inclusion in the National Register.”

The report also says the Cultural Resources Unit of the Illinois Department of Transportation disagrees with the feds’ finding, “and concluded that the proposed changes will not sufficiently diminish or remove the overall integrity of the [Jackson Park] historic district in such a way that it would no longer qualify for a [National Register] listing.”

The important next steps

A group that includes officials from the city, the state Historic Preservation Agency, the Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service met Thursday to discuss the report. The group has until spring to figure out solutions to mitigate the problems raised by the feds.

Given what’s at stake, we want the session to spark frank and open discussions about the center’s impact on the park. And rather than finding a political solution to the problems — ”what’s the least we can do?” — this process must bring about thoughtful, well-designed responses that are shaped by public input and the considerable architectural expertise surrounding the project.

Anything less could lead to a design that spoils this jewel of a park rather than enhances it.

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