Obama Center and related park changes lead discussions in 2017

A rendering of a combined park and parking structure for the Barack Obama Presidential Center, proposed by The Barack Obama Foundation. – Rendering courtesy of The Barack Obama Foundation

Staff Writer

Things have not slowed down since the announcement of Jackson Park as the selected site for the future Barack Obama Center in 2016. During the last half of the year the Obama Foundation, the city of Chicago, Chicago Park District, and Chicago Department of Transportation hosted numerous meetings on changes that will occur in conjunction with the construction of the Obama Center and the proposed golf course merger with two community golf courses.

Also, this year, residents in and around the site have taken action to show their support or disproval for the projects that are slated for the park.

Obama unveils designs for OPC.

Just four months after closing out his final term at the White House, former President Barack Obama revealed the designs for the Obama Center to a packed house at the South Shore Cultural Center in the first week of May.

The design concept includes three buildings: the museum, forum, and library. The buildings will form a campus surrounding a public plaza. The OPC will include a state-of-the-art museum, classrooms, labs, and outdoor spaces, and it will conduct programming for visitors intended to provide the tools necessary to spark change in their communities.

Groundbreaking for the project is expected to begin in late 2018 and construction of the building will take about four years.

The museum, which is the tallest of the three buildings, will hold exhibition space, public spaces, offices and education and meeting rooms. The forum and library buildings will be community resources for study and foundation programming.

Both the forum and the library will be single-story structures with planted roof terraces.

Pathways incorporated within the design takes visitors from the park to landscaped roofs above the library and forum. From the top of the buildings, there is a view of Lake Michigan, the Lagoon, and the plaza.

The OPC is designed to “re-establish the South Side’s connection to the Lagoon and Lake Michigan,” according to the press release.

The design also includes children’s play centers, a sledding hill, and outdoor lawn space Obama said of the amenities added to the design. He said they are intended to help people to enjoy the park and visit other spots in Jackson Park, such as the Lagoon and Wooded Islands.

The total size of the OPC will be between 200,000 and 225,000 gross square feet. According to the foundation’s release, “the concept site plan imagines a re-shaping of the park that will result in a total net increase in green space for Jackson Park.”

Other points mentioned at the unveiling include a recommendation by Obama to close Cornell Drive which he said cuts right through the park.

“You can’t have little kids playing next to a road. You can’t have sledding into the road. You can’t walk to the lagoon because there is no place to cross the street. Let’s restore Jackson Park to the original vision and let’s make sure traffic is accommodated down Lake Shore Drive as well as down along 59th Street.”

Other changes, according to renderings, include moving the existing athletic track and field just south of where it is currently located.

Obama said he expects the OPC to bring in between 600,000 and 700,000 visitors annually.

The Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) started survey work in November within and near Jackson Park.

Survey work consists of ISAS staff taking soil cores and performing hand-excavated tests to “investigate potentially historically significant subsurface deposits or features,” said the Chicago Park District in a previous article in the Herald.

The project boundaries within the park are between 55th Street to 68th Street. The survey will also include a portion of property between 59th and 60th streets east of the Metra tracks.

The property included in the survey is likely the location proposed by the Obama Foundation for a two-story above ground parking garage, for the OPC.

The Obama Center and economic impact

The Obama Foundation in May released an economic impact assessment that estimates the financial impact that the Obama Center will have on the South Side, the city of Chicago, and the state.

The economic impact study, which was conducted by Deloitte Consulting, estimates a 10-year economic impact of $3.1 billion that will generate more than 2,500 jobs in Cook County.

In regards to jobs in the city, the report projects 2,536 permanent jobs in Cook County.

Also, outlined in the assessment is the economic impact for Cook County businesses, $246 million annually, with $177 million expected to flow to businesses on the South Side.

The report also indicates that 4,945 jobs will be created in Cook County during the construction phase of the OPC, generating $296 million.

Roadway changes in Jackson Park

The proposed site location for OPC is near 60th Street and Stony Island Avenue, which is right on the cusp of the entrance to Midway Plaisance Park at 59th Street, according to design plans released in May.

During the summer months, the city and the Chicago Park District hosted community conversations on changes within the park. The Chicago Department of Transportation participated in the meetings and also hosted their own public meeting to discuss roadway closures and improvements to the network of roads within Jackson Park.

The purpose of the meetings was two-fold to gain feedback from the community about roadway improvements and construction as well as an opportunity to gather input for a new South Lakefront Framework, which will be an updated version of the 1999 framework plan that includes Jackson Park, Washington Park, and South Shore Cultural Center.

The framework plan will first focus on the changes to Jackson and South Shore Parks, with a discussion about Washington Park to be held at a later date.

At previous meetings, the consensus from residents is that the closing of Cornell Drive, a six-lane road that runs through Jackson Park from 57th Street south to 67th Street, would not benefit drivers because of existing traffic patterns.

When Obama unveiled the designs for the OPC, he mentioned that the plan recommended closing Cornell Drive.

Roadway closures for both the OPC and golf course renovations include Midway Plaisance (eastbound) between Stony Island Avenue, and Cornell Drive, Cornell Drive from 59th Street to Hayes Drive, Marquette Drive from Stony Island Avenue to Richards Drive, and northbound from Cornell Avenue from 67th to 65th streets.

The concept design for the golf course calls for two underpasses one at South Jeffrey Boulevard and another at South Shore Drive.

The second underpass at South Shore, according to representatives from the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance would benefit golfers and the community at large who use the intersection to access the lakefront.

CDOT hopes to counter the closures by improving Lake Shore Drive, Hayes Drive, and intersections to accommodate diverted traffic.

The proposal, which was released in August outlines adding one southbound lane on Lake Shore Drive from 57th Street to Hayes Drive, a signal, controlled crosswalk at Richards Drive, and reducing on-street parking in order to add two travel lanes.

Additionally, the proposal calls for adding two lanes to Stony Island Avenue from 59th Street to 63rd Street, maintaining on-street parking and loading areas.

New pedestrian crossings and underpasses will be added including one at 67th Street and South Shore Drive.

Closed roadways will be converted to parkland. CDOT projects a gain of three – to – five new acres of parkland.

Estimated costs for roadway improvements have not yet been determined, said Rebekah Scheinfeld, commissioner of CDOT in a previous article in the Herald.

“It’s premature we want to get the design concepts right before we do hard estimates and put numbers out there,” Scheinfeld said. “This is really about the design development and process and making sure that we’re scoping things appropriately for the community and getting that feedback.

She said, “When we finalize the scope of investments that we think are appropriate, then we will [determine] projected costs.”

Community concerns and the Obama Center

While the Obama Center will be housed in Jackson Park, the center is set between the communities of Hyde Park, Woodlawn, and South Shore. Each neighborhood has its own concerns about the Obama Center and its potential impact on their communities.

Residents in Woodlawn are concerned about being displaced from the homes. The Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition is calling for the Obama Foundation to sign a CBA, or community benefits agreement.

A CBA is a contract signed by community groups and a real estate developer that requires the developer to provide specific amenities and development to the local community or neighborhood.

The coalition is leading the charge for a written agreement with developers of the OPC, the Obama Foundation, the city of Chicago, the Chicago Park District and the University of Chicago, who proposed the center’s location on the South Side.

Principles outlined by the Obama Library CBA would require that jobs be set-aside for people in the community, affordable housing and protection for homeowners, support and create black-owned businesses, and strengthen neighborhood schools.

“We want a CBA,” said Michele Williams, a resident of Woodlawn, during a demonstration in November. “The people who live here do not want to be pushed out. We don’t want to be excluded we want to be included. We’re not mad at anybody we just want our fair share.”

The coalition said in September that they would present their request for an ordinance to the Chicago City Council that would, by law compel the Obama Foundation and related entities to enter into a CBA for the Obama Center.

To be enacted into law the ordinance would need support from the full body of the city council. Organizers said the CBA does have aldermanic support, but it is still not known who is backing the ordinance.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said in a previous article in the Herald that she will not support the measure if it is introduced to the council.

The ordinance is the latest push by the coalition after former President Barack Obama indicated that the Obama Foundation would not sign a CBA.

During a public meeting in September, Obama addressed the issue head on he said a CBA could be a useful tool, but stated that the foundation is “a nonprofit. We aren’t making money we are just bringing money to the community.”

Obama said the foundation would implement standards on hiring, to ensure the community and residents benefit from the process “based on the input from the community.”

Obama also stated that a CBA is not inclusive enough.

“In this situation, it’s not inclusive enough because I would then be signing with who,” Obama asked, “what particular organizations would be speaking for everybody in that community.”

He also mentioned that it would signal to other groups who could use it as an opportunity to be “the gatekeeper on this process.”

Organizers through a CBA are attempting to get what the Obama Foundation has promised to the community in writing.

The two conflict because the Obama Foundation believes that it can meet the needs of the community without a CBA while organizers think a CBA is necessary and will be an added protection to ensure that the foundation honors its commitment.

Many organizations have signed on to support the coalition including Friends of the Parks, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Health Care Illinois and the Chicago Teachers Union.

In addition to the Coalition, two other groups have also come on the scene this year that seeks to represent the voice of the community.

The Woodlawn, Washington Park and South Shore Community, and Economic Development Organization and the Coalition for the Obama Presidential Center both have a similar goal in mind, seeking community representation in discussions and planning for the Obama Center.

Dr. Bryon Brazier, pastor of Apostolic Church of God, 6320 S. Dorchester Ave., and Pastor Torrey Barrett of the K.L.E.O Center and executive pastor of Life Center Church of God in Christ, 5500 South Indiana Ave., are working together to guide the organization.

According to the organization’s website, it provides information about the organization and needs in the communities in its name and offers members of the community a chance to apply to join the organization and supply input for next steps.

The Chicago Community Trust provided seed funding to conduct research and best practices for the unnamed group. Next Street, an organizational consulting firm, was commissioned to consult and create a proposal for the new group.

Arne Duncan, former United States Secretary of Education, was named co-chairman for WWPSS.

Coalition for the Obama Presidential Center (COPC) was launched in August and created in response “to the growing demand for proper representation for issues related to the OPC,” said the coalition in a written release.

“COPC is dedicated to working to address crime and safety, education, jobs and economic development by mobilizing around the opportunity that the Obama Presidential Center will bring to the community,” Dr. Ogbonna Bowden, the newly elected president of COPC, said in a written release.

COPC said that it would challenge outside organizations that do not share in the best interest of residents and community stakeholders.

Rev. Dr. Leon Finney sponsored the convention for COPC. Finney is the pastor of the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, 4610 S. Prairie Ave.

Another concern in the wake of development for the Obama Center is its proposal for an above ground parking facility on the Midway.

At a private meeting at its Hyde Park headquarters, the design team for the Obama Presidential Center said it would keep with its original proposal to have an above ground-parking garage on the Midway directly across the street from the Obama Center in Jackson Park despite opposition from the community.

“I am disappointed to see that there were no other options that were presented that did not include the Midway and concerned that there continues to be a tone deafness to the community’s voice,” said Bronwyn Nichols Lodato, president of the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council.

What remains unknown, said Lodato is why the foundation is insistent on the location for the garage and if the foundation has or will consider another site for the garage.

Officials at the meeting said it was important to have the parking garage above ground “so that people will be forced to walk outside across the street and they argue that this would provide an incentive for economic development,” said Margaret Schmid, a coordinator with the citizen watchdog group, Jackson Park Watch.

The question though, said Schmid is where would the shops or restaurants be placed. The area is residential, and there are not any shops or restaurants in the area.

Changes that were presented include – moving bus staging from the Midway to Stony Island Avenue, hiding the entry and exit driveways, disguising much more of the parking structure with additional landscaping, and elevating the Cheney Goode memorial bench and pedestal, according to the foundation.

Design plans that were introduced in August that featured a basketball court, BBQ grills, and picnic tables to be situated on top of the parking structure, were cut from the plan.

The foundation said the change came in response to conversations with residents over the past few months.

The Obama Center itself is 20 acres, with the garage, the footprint expands to 26 acres.

The parking garage would be above the grade of the present parkland at the eastern end of Midway Plaisance between 59th and 60th streets and Stony Island Avenue and the Metra Tracks and would be able to hold about 400-450 cars.

The facility will be covered and surrounded by a 3-4 acre park open to the public. The structure would also include off-street bus drop-off and pick-up, bicycle parking, and a connection to Metra.

Residents and park preservationists have been vocal about their opposition to having the garage on the Midway, land that is historic and publicly owned.

The City of Chicago owns Midway Plaisance. At a previous meeting, the foundation said that pending approval by the City Council, “the city would convey rights for parking to the Obama Foundation.”

Groups such as the Midway Plaisance Advisory Council and the campaign to Save the Midway have been actively pushing back against the proposal.

The MPAC, in October, voted to adopt a resolution outlining their stance on the proposal during a meeting. As stated in the resolution the MPAC opposes having the parking garage on the Midway and transferring Midway land to private entities. PAC members also feel like a parking garage goes against the original vision of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed the park in the 1800s.

Additionally, they feel the parking structure goes against a master plan that was developed for the park in 2000. The Park District, the University of Chicago and community members worked together to form a master plan for the Midway.

The multi-year plan featured about 20 projects including designs for the Allison Davis Garden, a Winter Garden, Reader’s Garden, and an ice rink. Some but not all of the projects were implemented in the Park.

For example, the winter garden, a garden outside the law school was completed as well as the ice rink and icehouse on the Midway.

One specific project that is of concern to the members of the committee is a proposed children’s garden.

Some members who were a part of the planning process for the 2000 master plan claim that the end part of the master plans included discussion for a children’s garden that is in the exact spot that the Obama Foundation is considering for an above ground parking garage steps away from the Obama Center.

In an email to the Herald last month, a Park District spokeswoman stated “We determined that the parking structure is not planned for the site proposed for the Children’s Garden in the 2000 Framework Plan. According to the 2000 Midway Plaisance Master Plan, the Children’s Garden Playground was to be built directly across from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Services Administration, near E. 60th St. and S. Ellis Ave.”

MPAC members through the resolution urged the foundation, the city of Chicago, the Chicago Park District and the University of Chicago, who proposed the center’s location on the South Side to find an alternative site for the parking garage.

Those who were at the meeting said there were suggestions for alternative sites for the parking garage.

For example, one potential spot is a commuter parking lot that is located on 60th Street and Stony Island Avenue, the parking lot is owned by the University of Chicago. Another suggestion includes pushing it underground near the site for the Obama Center and or expanding parking within the Museum of Science and Industry’s existing underground parking lot.

Obama Center and related park improvements trigger a federal review

Projects that are on the horizon in Jackson Park such as the Obama Center, accompanying roadway changes, and related South Lakefront Framework Plan improvements 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) of 1966.

Jackson Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance Historic Landscape District. It was placed on the list in 1972.

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 of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development’s website.

About 76 entities including state, local, and national government agencies and organizations were invited to participate as consulting parties for the federal review process. The first meeting was held last month at the South Side YMCA.

One aspect of the NEPA process includes a review of historic resources under “Section 106” of the NHPA.

The two federal environmental reviews are separate but related processes.

They require government agencies and other stakeholders to take a closer look at the impact of proposed plans on historic sites, buildings, and other cultural resources while also taking into account the cultural landscape features, architectural and ecological resources.

The city’s Department of Planning and Development and the Department of Transportation are facilitating the Section 106 review in coordination with the Federal Highway Administration.

The federal review process includes a series of phases. The first phase included reviewing the undertaking of the roadway improvements, the OPC and related South Lakefront Framework Plan improvements and identifying the consulting parties. The first phase also included developing a schedule of when the department of planning and CDOT would meet with the public. The process is currently in the second stage, which includes identifying historic resources, determining the area of potential effects, and evaluating with consulting parties.

The current phase, said Eleanor Gorski, deputy commissioner with the City Department of Planning and Development said will last through the spring of 2018.

The timetable for the federal review process if necessary could extend through Fall 2018. The federal review process has slowed down the Obama Foundation’s plan in presenting to the Chicago Plan Commission. Previously the foundation said it would present proposals at the end of 2017. Instead, the foundation will give introduce the project early this year.

The merger of the Jackson and South Shore golf courses

Toward the end of the 2016, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Park District CEO and Superintendent, Mike Kelly announced the proposal for a merger of two community golf courses, the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses.

During a public meeting in June, design plans were released for the golf course. The design for the golf course calls for cutting out the basketball courts, two sets of tennis courts, a soccer field, as well as the nature sanctuary.

“A portion of the nature center would be converted to golf,” said Gregg Calpino, principal landscape architect at Smith Group JJR during a public meeting in June.

The Chicago Park District Board, in January, unanimously agreed on an initial contract of just over $1 million to start research and engineering design for the $30 million project.

The contract will allow, for pre-work, including site planning, surveys, engineering and community process in support of the redesign of South Shore and Jackson Park golf courses.

Following the board’s decision, Kelly during a 5th ward monthly meeting said despite the board’s decision, a timeline for construction and renovations for the golf complex has not yet been determined. He said he would not break ground until there is enough money raised to fund the project.

“I am not about to turn earth until I know that you guys know what we’re up to and we’ve got a plan in place,” Kelly said in a previous article in the Herald.

The proposed professional golf courses will cost $30 million. If the proposal were approved, the present two golf courses would be transformed and combined into a single 18-hole championship course and a shorter course.

Park District officials during a public meeting last month said they would integrate the golf course into the updated South Lakefront Framework plan after more input is gathered from the community. Separate meetings on the golf course will be held when the time is right, according to Kelly.

“We are not talking golf tonight,” Kelly said during the Chicago Park District’s public meeting last month.

“Our goal is to stage the 2021 BMW Championship right here on this new course,” said Mark Rolfing, founder and president of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance during a public meeting in June.

The CPGA is a newly formed non-profit that is charged with funding the project as well as creating pathways to expand youth golf programs.

South Lakefront Framework Plan

In December, the Park District released three new plans for the improvement of Jackson and South Shore parks with many old ideas included with the possibility of different locations for them and many new programs for activities and conservation.

For example, the Chicago Park District proposed moving the present track and field further south from the Obama Presidential Center to just north of 63rd Street. The district showed three versions of the plan, including building a new track and field, replacing and expanding the track and field to include a turf field for soccer, and forming a new a track and turf football field.

Proposed plans also include the Jackson Park Fieldhouse, 6401 S. Stony Island Ave., and show it renovated in its present location, rebuilt and moved to 63rd Street, or renovated and expanded in its current position to include a new gymnasium.

The District asked for commentary on the three versions of improvements to the parks and that the public could mix and match ideas from the plans.

The plans were presented as if the Obama Presidential Center were to be built in its present location along Stony Island and 59th Street, but versions of the plans did not include proposed merger of two community golf courses.

Each of the three plans outlines where popular places such as the tennis courts, the dog park (Jackson Bark), track and field and or historic sites, such as the Iowa Building within Jackson Park will be relocated within the park and or renovated and repurposed.

In one instance a proposed new location for the Jackson Bark would be near the Iowa Building, which is located near the intersection of South Everett Avenue and 56th Street, and another plan places the dog park near the Inner Harbor, 6400 S. Lake Shore Dr.

The new South Lakefront Framework Plan, which will be implemented over the next ten years, is an updated version of the 1999 framework plan that includes Jackson Park, Washington Park, and the South Shore Cultural Center.

The purpose of this project is to create a long-term plan for improvements for the parks over time it also functions as a planning tool for the community and the Chicago Park District and will become the South Lakefront Framework Plan.
Six categories make up each plan.

Active Recreation and Events – The plans include: playing fields and courts along Hayes Drive, basketball courts in their current area on Stony Island Avenue, a lighted baseball-football/soccer complex along Hayes, football/soccer fields in East Meadow.

Passive Recreation and Ecology – The plans feature: picnic areas around the Museum of Science and Industry, East Meadow and Harbor Peninsula; and a new nature playground at the South Shore Beach.

Water Use and Quality – The plans call for a new South Shore beach house, a new 59th Street Harbor building, deepening the Columbia basin for paddle boats, a breakwater to protect Outer Harbor, promenade along the south side of Inner Harbor; and water taxi stops at the 59th Street Harbor and Inner Harbor.

History Arts, and Culture – The plan calls for improving the South Shore Cultural Center; building a music pavilion; renovating the existing driving range building, the Iowa Building, and the Burnham Pavilion; and relocating the Statue of the Republic to the Inner Harbor.

Connectivity – Plans include new trails, bike paths, and underpasses to improve connectivity within the park.

Vehicular Circulation and Parking – The plans call for expanded parking. A new parking lot would be created to support the Tennis Court complex at existing Bowling Green.

To see a complete overview of the proposed plans visit

Clarence Darrow Bridge or Columbia Bridge updates

Restoration of the Columbia Bridge or the Clarence Darrow Memorial Bridge that is situated over Jackson Park Lagoon is expected to begin in 2019.

The bridge, which is in Jackson Park located at the rear of the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) 5700 S. Lake Shore Dr., has been closed since 2015.
Presently, the project is in phase one, which includes preliminary engineering, environmental studies, and bridge type of evaluation, public meetings, and a project report.

The price tag for construction is about $6 million.

The bridge was built in the 1880s and was widened in 1895.

It was restored in 1942 and 1961. The overall length is 56 inches with an overall deck width of 56’-6’’ feet.

Proposed improvements include removing existing structure including limestone abatements. Abatements are structures that are built to support the pressure of water on a bridge or pier.

CDOT will maintain bridge width, length, and alignment as well as restore historic elements including bridge abutment stones and a handrail.

The plan includes lighting within bridge limits and rehabilitating the path between Stony Island Avenue and Lake Shore Drive.

The bridge is 100 plus years old and to maintain the work that will be done over the next few years Tanera Adams project manager at CDOT is recommending that the walkway under the bridge be closed off.

Some use the area to fish and light fires in the colder months.

“What aided in this bridge falling apart is the fact that people were setting fires under [the bridge]. No matter how much we try and close off access people will [find a way] open it,” said Tanera Adams, in a previous article in the Herald, adding that input from the community is needed to decide on whether or not it would be kept open.

The walkway underneath the bridge aided pedestrians getting to the other side of the basin. It was also an area that was used during the World’s Columbian Fair that was hosted in Jackson Park for gondola rides.

For a time the bridge was open to cars, but it was closed to vehicle traffic in 2009.

The bridge will only be used for pedestrian traffic and open to emergency vehicle use.

Funding for the phases of the project has been difficult said Adams, monies were secured for the first two phases — 80 percent of was paid for by the state — but not the last, according to a previous article in the Herald.

It took two years to secure funds for the entire length of the project. Adams said she had applied for numerous grants but was unsuccessful. She explained that the reason was that of the bridge’s location and it that it does not connect to a roadway.

Adams with assistance from the Chicago Park District was able to receive funding for the project successfully. In addition to bridge restoration, the city will also update the pedestrian paths from Stony Island Avenue to the lakefront.

This year, CDOT expects to prepare for a contract for the project and construction is slated to begin in 2019.

HPKCC backs Bixler Park Advisory Council

The Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference agreed to be a fiscal sponsor for the Bixler Playlot Park Advisory Council in August.

Bixler PAC, which was formed last year, was previously under Friends of the Park said Bixler PAC Chairwoman Mila Jameson. The group moved on from FOP and sought out a sponsorship with local nonprofit organizations similar to HPKCC.

Jameson said in a previous article in the Herald, at the suggestion of another PAC member she considered the HPKCC, who also sponsors the Nichols Park Advisory Council and has done so for decades.

“We wanted to go with a local organization that’s been around and has a good reputation,” Jameson said. “Now we can do more than just make phone calls. We’re able to have fundraisers and apply for grants.”

To make improvements at Bixler Playlot Park, 1372 E. 57th St., the PAC needed to have a non-profit fiscal status to raise donations or have funds, which the HPKCC will provide for the Bixler PAC per their agreement.