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Obama Center architect: Considering moving controversial garage

Obama Presidential Center Architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien | Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

Tod Williams, one of the Obama Presidential Center architects, said Tuesday moving a proposed parking garage for the future Center is under consideration, commenting as some community groups have been raising questions about its location.

The proposed garage, to hold up to 450 vehicles, would be on a patch of the Midway Plaisance owned by the city, bounded by Stony Island between 59th and 60th, across the street from where the Center is to be built in Jackson Park.

If the garage were to be built underground on the Midway site — or beneath the Center — the Obama Foundation would be making a concession at a time it is also pressing to close Cornell Avenue as it flows though Jackson Park, a matter of very intense local interest.

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Closing Cornell and connecting the Obama Center with the nearby Museum of Science and Industry to create a mega-campus is a central part of the vision of Williams and Billie Tsien, the husband-and-wife team designing the Obama Center.

They discussed the project during a session at the inaugural Obama Foundation Summit, a global event presided over by former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle.

The architects provided a rare public look into the process behind the design of the Center, with the initial concept unveiled last May.

The Midway garage was announced by the Foundation in August with a supposed selling point that the roof would be landscaped to double as a public park. Also dropped was a plan to have the garage also be a bus stop.

“We are wondering whether this parking should exist here,” Williams said, pointing to the proposed parking structure on the 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 on the model to the main footprint of the Center in Jackson Park. “So we are waiting to hear from communities as to what they want.”

My takeaway: Rethinking the garage does not impact the essential concept of the Obama Center complex. Not being able to incorporate Cornell into the design and turn the asphalt into the connective tissue between the Center and the Museum of Science and Industry would be a more profound issue.

Williams said he expected “Stony Island will be widened because Cornell will be removed.”

After the session, Michael Strautmanis, the Obama Foundation vice president of civic engagement was asked about Williams comments about the Midway garage

“We’ve heard concerns about the use of the land there,” Strautmanis said. “And we’ve also heard from some people who want to make sure that this entire project continues to create more vibrant, usable park space. So we’ve heard all that.

“And as you know, design is an iterative process.”

Asked if it were fair to say the Foundation is considering alternatives to the Midway site for the garage, Strautmanis said, “I would not call it alternative. We continue to take in feedback and we are coming up with ideas in response to that feedback. This was an opportunity to share some of these ideas.”

The Foundation had planned to submit plans to the Chicago Plan Commission by the end of the year. A foundation source said even with the garage plans likely back on the drawing board, that timetable could be met. But in the scheme of things, if it takes a few more months it is not a big deal.