Federal review of Obama Center to begin Friday

Staff Writer

A new wave of private meetings is set for Friday, Dec. 1, kick-starting a formal federal government review process that will evaluate the Barack Obama Presidential Center (OPC) and other park-related improvements and their impact on Jackson Park. The park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance Historic Landscape District.

Projects that are on the horizon in Jackson Park such as the OPC and renovations to the Jackson and South Shore golf courses plus related roadway closures require a federal review process.

The various projects explicitly call for a federal level environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) as well as the regulations under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).

The stated purpose of the review is for the city, the State Historic Preservation Office, other federal and state agencies, plus the public to weigh in on and “if necessary, mitigate the effects of the projects,” said the city Department of Planning and Development’s website.

The first meeting will be held on Friday, Dec. 1 from 10 a.m. to noon at the South Side YMCA, 6330 S. Stony Island Ave., more sessions will follow.

Margaret Schmid, co-coordinator of the citizen Jackson Park Watch, said the review process is an opportunity for a new set of people to evaluate the future projects in Jackson Park.

“We think it’s an important opportunity to have some new players to take a look,” Schmid said. “This will be a chance to get more people in who aren’t deeply entwined in Chicago already and have them take a look.”

The two federal environmental reviews are separate, but related processes according to the city Department of Planning and Development’s website. They require federal agencies to take a closer look at the impacts of proposed plans on historic sites, buildings, and other cultural resources while also taking into account the cultural landscape features, architectural and ecological resources.

”When both are required, they must be completed concurrently, under the direction of a lead federal agency, according to the City Department of Planning and Development’s website. In this instance, the lead agency would be the Federal Highway Administration.

”It [Section 106] allows for transparency and the broadest possible public to be engaged in a process when a historic property such as Jackson Park is the subject for changes and alterations,” said Charles Birnbaum, president, and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF). “The goal of [section] 106 is to minimize what the adverse impact would be on those signature qualities in this case of the [Jackson] park.”

TCLF is a Washington D.C. – based non-profit that educates and engages the public in making shared landscape heritage more visible.

Though the OPC and the golf course are separate projects, Birnbaum stated that “all of these when taken together represent a radical change in the park that was listed on the National Register,” Birnbaum said adding that all related changes in the Park must be considered holistically.

The private Washington Foundation last month in its Landslide, an annual thematic compendium of threatened and at-risk landscapes, listed Jackson Park. The OPC and the proposed merger of the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses, as well as the proposed above ground-parking proposal were named as significant threats.

Details proposed for the OPC including roadway closures and the Foundation’s proposed above ground parking garage on the Midway have raised many questions and concerns Schmid of Jackson Park Watch said.

At previous public meetings held in the summer months, the Obama Foundation said that it would submit its plans for the center to the Chicago Planning Commission before year’s end.

Now that the required federal review process has been announced it is unclear if the foundation will still submit its proposal to the Planning Commission this year.

“The Foundation is continuing the public process we began in May by participating in this additional review and appreciate the input we’re getting from stakeholders across the city on ways we can strengthen the Obama Presidential Center,” wrote an Obama Foundation spokesperson in an email to the Herald.

For more information on the environmental review of Jackson Park improvements visit www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dcd/supp_info/jackson-park-improvements.html.