Construction likely will start this year on the long-delayed $500 million Obama Presidential Center, a development we’ll be glad to see, at last.
The Obama Foundation made a big splash in 2016 when it announced plans to build the center in Jackson Park, a 500-acre green spot, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, that once hosted the famed 1893 World’s Fair.
But a planned 2018 groundbreaking has yet to happen due to civil suits from parks advocates, and because of a lengthy state and federal governmental review assessing the impact of putting the center in the historic park.
The review process ends this month with the state’s Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation signing off on a memorandum of agreement outlining the mitigation steps the Obama Foundation must take for the privilege of building the center in Jackson Park. The Federal Highway Administration and the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office signed the agreement last month.
A federal review under the National Environmental Policy Act remains. Officials believe the study could be finished by February. We hope the result is a thumbs-up in favor of the center.
After that, we say let’s get it on.
A needed economic and cultural boost
As a construction project with a four-year build-out, the Obama Center could be an economic boost that provides jobs and opportunities for South Side lakefront communities such as Woodlawn and South Shore that are just beginning to recover from decades of disinvestment.
The center could be a leading Chicago tourism center that boosts the South Side’s arts and culture scene as it joins the Museum of Science and Industry, the DuSable Museum of African American History and the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum.
And the plan promises — on renderings at least — generously-sized plazas and green spaces that would be set aside for outdoor activities.
If programmed correctly, activities there could compliment a host of annual warm weather events in Hyde Park, South Shore and Woodlawn, including the Silver Room’s massive yearly summer block party at 53rd Street and Harper Avenue, and the Chosen Few annual picnic, which draws tens of thousands to Jackson Park just south of the presidential center site.
We’re hoping the Obama Center sparks even more economic and cultural activity, as we’ve seen the Clinton Center do in Arkansas. Since its completion in 2004, the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park has had a $3.3 billion economic impact in Little Rock, including $2.46 billion in new investment to the city’s downtown, according to a study prepared for the museum’s 10th anniversary.
Those are numbers the South Side and the whole City of Chicago could use.
Questions remain, however
We’re strong supporters of the Obama Presidential Center, first endorsing a proposal to put it in Jackson Park in 2016. Still, we continue to have concerns about its design and some associated public costs.
The center and its grounds are to occupy 20 acres bounded by the Midway Plaisance, Stony Island Avenue, Cornell Drive and 63rd Street. Cornell Drive, a main roadway through the park, would be closed and converted to park space, but the plan calls for widening both Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue — two thoroughfares that are already approaching highway-grade width as it is. This has to be reexamined.
And so does the cost of altering the roads. The city in 2018 put itself on the hook for $175 million in roadway improvements. Given the tight budget squeeze the city and state will face for years to come as a result of the pandemic, this appropriation requires a relook.
Even if the city wrangles the money out of the federal government, the wisdom of spending that much money in one place — and for one purpose — deserves to be questioned.
We also take issue with the 235-foot height of the Obama Museum, a building the president’s foundation’s website calls “a new landmark for the South Side.”
But it’s a big new landmark. Especially for a park. The building would be almost 40 feet taller than downtown’s Monadnock Building at Jackson and Dearborn streets.
Or consider the 140-foot U.S. Bank Tower, which sticks out like the tallest tree in the forest at 111th Street and the Bishop Ford Expressway. The Obama Museum would be 95 feet taller than that.
We’re hoping the tower’s height — or even its presence at all — can be changed. But there is no doubting that the Obama Center would be a powerful new addition to the Chicago landscape.
We’re ready for the South Side — and Chicago — to benefit from this new institution.
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