Obama Presidential Center to Receive Federal Review

UPDATE: The Obama Presidential Center plans are moving to the next step which requires federal review. Because the 1871 Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux-designed Jackson Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, requires the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to determination whether legitimate efforts are being made to minimize adverse effects on the historic park.

These federal reviews mark “the first time to think holistically about the park,” said Charles Birnbaum, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Cultural Landscape Foundation based in Washington. Jackson Park “is at the tipping point. Altogether the confiscation of 20-plus acres for the Obama Presidential Center, golf course consolidation and expansion, new roads, impacts on the lakefront, loss of historic trees, and a parking garage at the Midway, result in a massive adverse effect on the National Register of Historic Places designated park.” (Sweet, Chicago Sun-Times, 11/26/17)

On May 3rd before a packed meeting held at the South Shore Cultural Center, President Obama unveiled plans for the Obama Presidential Center. To be located on nine acres on Jackson Park, Obama intends the library initiative to be a “transformational project for this community.” He hopes the Presidential Center creates a dynamic hub on the South Side that will serve as a training institute for young people and the next generation of leadership.

The planned three building campus surrounding a plaza space includes two low-slung buildings with landscaped rooftop gardens and a monumental 180-foot tall stone-clad building (now possibly revised to 220-feet tall). To provide some additional context, the 11-story Reva and David Logan Center for Arts at the University of Chicago is 168 feet tall, and the 11-story historic Chicago Landmark Hyde Park Bank Building at 53rd and Harper is 135 feet tall. The proposed Obama Presidential Library would be taller the both of these structures.

The proposed multi-story parking garage added in recent plans for the Midway Plaisance has generated widespread opposition, including the formation of the group, Friends of the Midway, and in response to the outcry, the design team agreed to reconsider alternatives at a recent public meeting.
The design team includes architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and Brooklyn-based landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh. The Foundation and design team has indicated that they are aware that they are designing within the context of a one of the most important landscapes, designed by one the worlds’ greatest landscape designers. Jackson Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also designed New York’s Central Park.

If the Obama Presidential Center is built in Jackson Park, Preservation Chicago would like to see the Center formally adopt all of Jackson Park’s upkeep and to restore a number of historic buildings within the park that have fallen into significant disrepair such as the Comfort Station located at 6600 S. South Shore Drive, the Iowa Building, walking paths, bridges, and other features.

The current plan calls for the closure of Cornell Drive as it winds through Jackson Park. The original Frederick Law Olmsted plans called for this parkway drive. Preservation Chicago supports the narrowing of Cornell Drive to more closely follow the original design intent which would create a slower, more pastoral boulevard along the western shore of the Lagoon. This would reverse much of the impact caused by widening Cornell Drive in the 1960’s.

Preservation Chicago supports the Obama Presidential Center coming to Chicago’s South Side and the economic stimulus it will generate, but not on public land and instead relocate to nearby private land. Additionally, we believe that adjustments to the location could significantly offset the negative impacts without compromising the projects benefits and goals.

During an interview with WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, Ward Miller suggested, if the Center is built in Jackson Park, that a more appropriate location for the Center within the Park would be a few blocks further south within Jackson Park on 64th and Stony Island where a rundown storage facility, a 1950’s era field house, and an overgrown tennis court could be cleared for the Center with less impact to the Frederick Law Olmsted design and the loss of fewer old-growth trees. Also, this would bring it into closer proximity to Theaster Gate’s highly dynamic Stony Island Arts Bank adaptive reuse development and a more positive impact on 67th Street.

“This could be a middle ground here. This is a part of the park that could welcome the building without impacting it in a huge way,” said Miller.

The current selected location by the Obama Presidential Foundation in Jackson Park was the site of several extraordinary buildings from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition including, the Woman’s Building, the Children’s Building, the Horticulture Building, and the Transportation Building. This site is an important archeological site as the foundations of these structures remain hidden just below the soil line.

The Women’s Building [from the World’s Columbian Exposition] was so important on so many levels and designed by architect, Sophia Hayden, her first and only commission. This was the beginning of the recognition of many achievements of women and a platform, which still impacts us today. It should be a celebrated site, to this remarkable history, and the achievement of a magnificent Beaux-Arts building.” (Ward Miller, Letter to Editor, Hyde Park Herald)

Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The environmental impact of building on the currently proposed site would significant. This site is highly wooded with many old-growth trees. “We’re looking at the loss of hundreds and hundreds of trees in Jackson Park either diminished or lost or cut – in addition to numerous baseball diamonds and a really first-class football field with a running track that’s relatively new and well used,” said Ward Miller. These features would be lost or need to be relocated elsewhere in the Park.

Preservation Chicago remains concerned over the precedent being set by converting public park land to other uses. One alternate location outside of Jackson Park that could be considered is the South Shore Cultural Center.

President Obama envisions the Center as a cultural hub and a training institute for the next generation of leadership. “Unlike traditional presidential libraries which house thousands of physical documents, the Jackson Park facility will provide digital access to President Obama’s archives, freeing up space for civic use including activities like basketball, dance recitals, and yoga classes. A community garden and test kitchen focused on nutritious foods (a cause championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama) could also be in the cards for Jackson Park.” Koziarz, 11/6/17)

The South Shore Cultural Center already provides many of these services, but programming and maintenance of this large historic building is a challenge for the budget constrained Chicago Park District.

While the South Shore Cultural Center enjoys 60 spectacular acres of lakefront property, the grounds and former country club buildings is now a cultural center with limited events and corporate functions. The South Shore Nature Sanctuary in the southeast corner of the grounds should be protected.

The South Shore Cultural Center building itself is a remarkable Mediterranean Revival Designated Chicago Landmark designed by Marshall & Fox in 1916. The formal ballrooms and meeting spaces already feel “presidential” with their formal classical revival detailing and ornament. Not surprisingly, the unveiling of the Center plan was held at the South Shore Cultural Center which easily accommodated the 300 attendees and created an elegant backdrop for the press conference. The site is a surrounded by a fence which would better control access and security for presidential and diplomatic functions.

Additionally, the Obama’s have a strong personal connection with the South Shore Cultural Center, as this was where they held their wedding reception in 1992.

The Metra Electric Line/Illinois Central Station is steps from the South Shore Cultural Center’s Gatehouse. The Metra Electric is already a cultural transit connection, originating at Millennium Park/Chicago Cultural Center, with stops at the Art Institute, the Museum Campus, Prairie Avenue, McCormick Place, Museum of Science and Industry, University of Chicago, and South Shore Cultural Center.

The commercial corridor on 71st Street would profoundly benefit from the proximity to the Center. Unlike the current location in Jackson Park which borders a residential district, the existing 71st Street commercial corridor would more easily allow the beneficial economic impacts to be transferred into the surrounding communities in the form of new restaurants, shops, and jobs.

Jackson Park appears on the Preservation Chicago 2017 Most Endangered list.

Additional Reading
Federal review of Obama Library plan has some critics hopeful for revisions, Jay Koziarz, Curbed Chicago 11/28/17

Feds launch review of Obama Presidential Center impact on Jackson Park, Lynn Sweet, Sun-Times, 11/26/17

Few details emerge on evolving design of Chicago’s Obama Library Jay Koziarz, Curbed Chicago, 11/6/27

Jackson Park watchdog group stepping up its efforts, AJ LaTrace, Curbed Chicago 10/9/17

Obama Library’s Wish List Is Long, But Who Will Pay For It All?, DNAinfo, Sam Cholke, June 21, 2017

Letter to the Editor: Could the Obama Presidential Center be moved several blocks to the south?, Ward Miller, Hyde Park Herald, 5/31/17

Preservation group proposes moving OPC farther south, Tonia Hill, Hyde Park Herald, May 31, 2017

Column: Tower at Obama center (don’t call it a library) needs tweaking, Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune, 5/5/17

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