The proposed Obama Presidential Center will have multiple adverse effects on historic Jackson Park in the Woodlawn and Hyde Park neighborhood.
The federal review process resumed on Monday, August 5 after the release on July 29 of the Assessment of Effects to Historic Properties report on the proposed Obama Presidential Center.
Comments to this AOE report are due back to the City of Chicago by 5 p.m. on August 30, 2019.
Preservation Chicago staffers Ward Miller and Mary Lu Seidel, along with Board member Jack Spicer, participated in the federal undertaking (or Section 106) meeting at the Logan Center on the University of Chicago campus. The meeting was inclusive and well-attended, including a broad spectrum of experts and neighborhood voices to consider the report. The full two hour meeting can be viewed at this link.
There were many flaws in the process and report itself. The report does not consider perspectives on the visual impact of the 235-foot tower proposed for the OPC. City staff indicated they did not have the technology to provide those perspectives, but that is difficult to accept. Section 106 convenings around the country consider the visual impact of projects. The City’s own Landmark review process considers visual perspectives of what proposed improvements can be seen from the street.
Additionally, the City is only focusing on mitigating those adverse effects. In the Section 106 process, when an adverse effect is identified there are three courses to take. First and foremost, avoidance is the highest priority. The best way to avoid the adverse effect of the OPC on Jackson Park is to move it outside of Jackson Park.
If avoidance is not possible, the second approach to take is minimization of adverse effect. For the OPC, that would mean significantly altering its design, scale and height to minimize the adverse effect it has on historic Jackson Park.
The very last option to consider if both avoidance and minimization are not possible is mitigation — replace or somehow make up for the adverse effect. The City’s examples of the mitigation it was focusing on was to update the National Register nomination for Jackson Park to reflect its adversely effected landscape after the OPC is built. The City also suggested developing multimedia educational and interpretive materials related to Jackson Park/Midway Plaisance, presumably to tell the story of what once was there but has now been lost.
Each term used in the Section 106 process has a very clear definition. When there is a federal undertaking (federal funds, federal approval, federal permitting) planned at a historic site (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), it triggers the Section 106 process under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. A report is produced which assesses the impact a project will have on a historic resource. The report details whether there is no effect, no adverse effect or an adverse effect. An adverse effect indicates that real harm will be inflicted by the federal undertaking.
The OPC report indicates a clear adverse effect on historic Jackson Park. Without the assessment of the visual impact of the proposed OPC tower, it is not possible to accurately assess its impact on other historic properties immediately adjacent to Jackson Park.
Call to Action
We encourage people to write comments to this report and submit them to the following people:
Address letters and emails to:
- Abby Monroe, City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Matt Fuller, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), email@example.com
- Lee Terzis, National Park Service (NPS), firstname.lastname@example.org
- Nate Roseberry, Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), email@example.com
- Heather Gleasen, Chicago Park District, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Brad Kodehoff, Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT), email@example.com
Preservation Chicago’s Section 106 process priorities include:
1. Avoidance first. The best way to avoid the adverse effect of the OPC is to move it outside of Jackson Park. Its location in Chicago and specifically the South Side is incredible, and there is no shortage of land there on which to accommodate such a development. The OPC would likely be under construction right now if the Obama Foundation had not chosen a nationally significant historic park site as its location.
2. Road closures. The closure and realignment of roads throughout Jackson Park should also be avoided. Particular focus is on plans to close a substantial section of Cornell Avenue through Jackson Park. This will negatively impact the historic landscape design elements of the park. The road could be narrowed to two lanes with accessible pedestrian and bicycle lanes adjacent to it, and this would eliminate the road closure adverse effect to the park. The park was designed when horse and buggies were the primary mode of transportation, but historic places can be updated and modernized without destroying that history. The Museum of Science and Industry building has been adapted to be relevant in a modern world, and the historic character of that building was not adversely compromised.
3. Viewsheds. Before a memorandum of agreement is finalized, there needs to be adequate time for the City to prepare visualizations of the impact the OPC will have on historic properties nearby.
4. Park replacement. As the proposed OPC is projected to reduce the acreage of parkland, it is required by law to replace that lost park space. The OPC is proposing that acreage be replaced primarily by improving the amenities in an existing greenspace on the Midway Plaisance just west of Jackson Park. This proposal is unacceptable, and it does little to improve access to park land in Woodlawn.
5. Trees. It is also unacceptable to destroy old growth trees for the OPC’s construction. Trees can be replaced, but taking down 125-year-old trees and replacing them with saplings is not an equitable replacement.
6. Cost. The cost to the City to accommodate this undertaking and continue through this process is burdensome to the taxpayers of Chicago and ultimately the county, state and country. If the OPC were built on private land that is not historic, the cost burden would be significantly reduced.
Preservation Chicago commends the Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago for successfully securing a Chicago location for the Obama Presidential Center. We now encourage them to find an alternate location that does not have this adverse effect. If a site had been chosen on private land that did not have a national historic designation, this project could be underway right now.
Preservation Chicago cares deeply about jobs, economic development and safety on the South Side, particularly in the Woodlawn area around Jackson Park. We know that all of their priorities can be accomplished without destroying a historic park that is an incredible asset to Chicago and the country. People travel far and wide to experience an Olmsted-designed park. Imagine how incredible it would be if nearly adjacent to Jackson Park was a world-renowned Obama Presidential Center commemorating the great 44th president of the United States.