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Years-long federal review of the Obama Center in Jackson Park in final stages

City Hall will not insist on replacement land outside of Jackson Park to make up for the 19.3 acres the Obama complex will occupy.

The Statue of the Republic sits outside the Jackson Park Golf Course, 6401 S. Richards Dr.
Federal agencies conducting historic preservation reviews of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park call for the restoration of the Statue of the Republic, at 6401 S. Richards Drive.
Sun-Times file photo

There is an end in sight for a pair of years-long federal reviews of the Obama Presidential Center, and based on a Thursday briefing we now know City Hall will not insist on replacement land outside of Jackson Park to make up for the 19.3 acres the complex will occupy.

We also learned that a potential roadblock did not pan out. A May 26 letter from the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office to federal and city officials called for an “additional design review,” suggesting moving the Obama Center further south in Jackson Park. The state agency is not pursuing the matter.

It now looks like the reviews by multiple federal agencies mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act — known as NEPA — and the National Historic Preservation Act could be done — and agreements signed by the parties — by the end of 2020. The first meeting of the various stakeholders for the federal review was on Dec. 1, 2017.

The reason for these reviews is because former President Barack Obama decided to build his presidential center in a park listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Jackson Park, designed by the famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, was added to the register in 1972.

City Hall held a webinar Thursday to discuss a draft Memo of Agreement – known as a MOA — covering proposals to mitigate preservation issues. Mainly, City Hall would document the park and put together some interpretive materials and preserve the English Stone Comfort Station near the west side of the park and restore the Statue of the Republic at East Hayes Drive and South Richards Drive.

From discussions at the webinar — and a subsequent call I made to City Hall — I confirmed that the city will not push the Obama Foundation for 19.3 acres outside of Jackson Park to be developed as new parkland. That was on the table in 2015.

Naomi Davis, the president and founder of Blacks in Green, said there should be replacement acres outside of Jackson Park and the adjacent Midway Plaisance. She said at the webinar those new “green spaces” could be “privately stewarded as community land trusts, public spaces.”

The briefing session brought together city, state and federal government officials and activists — for, against, and somewhat in-between — who have been deeply involved in the Obama Center development for years.

Erin Adams, president of South Side Neighbors for Hope, a supporter of the Obama Center, wrote in a side chat during the webinar, if people reviewed the plans “without distorted lens, they might be pleasantly surprised how much it will improve the park.”

Brenda Nelms, a co-president of Jackson Park Watch, said the MOA does not adequately address ways to mitigate adverse impacts to changes in Jackson Park.

After the webinar, Nelms summarized her criticisms, saying in a statement the proposed MOA “does nothing to preserve a central portion of Jackson Park as it has stood for over a century, with its open space and natural areas. The Women’s Garden would be dismembered, and the distinctive Olmsted circulation pattern would be eradicated. There would be no provision for new parkland to replace the 19.3 acres that would be lost despite how much COVID has heightened our awareness of the importance of outdoor space and public parkland.”

The debate over the use of a historic park has over the years – and on Thursday — exposed race and class fault lines in Chicago when it comes to the questions of whose voices should prevail in the fate of a historic park.

These matters take on a new importance in this new era we’re in, as the nation is grappling with racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Unless the name is changed, the presidential center for the nation’s first Black president will be in a park honoring President Andrew Jackson, a slave owner who forced the relocation of Native Americans from their homelands.

Perri Irmer, the president of DuSable Museum of African American History — who backs the proposed MOA — said the “assumed intentions of the designers,” which I took as an Olmsted reference, should not be put “ahead of the communities that (the Obama Center) will benefit.”

Stephanie Franklin, the president of the Nichols Park Advisory Council — the park is at 1355 E. 53rd — opposes the MOA.

Said Franklin. “We believe the first Black president of the United States deserves to be recognized, honored, for what he accomplished, not remembered for what he destroyed.”