City report cites adverse effects of OPC on historic park area

Aerial view of Jackson Park, 6401 S. Stony Island Ave. (Herald file photo)


Staff writer

A Department of Planning and Development (DPD) report on the effects of the Obama Presidential Center and roadway and recreation changes in Jackson Park found that they would have an “adverse effect” on the area’s historic character.

The findings mean that the Obama Foundation will need to mitigate the impact of some of the plans for the OPC before construction begins. They do not, however, mean that the plans in Jackson Park cannot go forward.

The federal review process requires federal agencies — in this case, the National Park Service (NPS) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) — to consider ways to resolve adverse effects.

Mitigation measures will be developed through a consultation process — a consulting parties meeting will take place on Aug. 5 at 3 p.m. at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St., 9th floor, followed by a public open house at 6 p.m. — but no specific commitments have been made yet.

In an interview with the Herald, officials from the Obama Foundation said they were pleased with the report. Fred Wagner, a Washington-based attorney helping with the federal historic preservation and environmental reviews, said that the report was basically what the foundation expected.

“Mitigation does not necessarily mean changes to the design itself,” Wagner said. “It means mitigating the impact the design has. We think the design will have a net positive feel” for the park.
Foundation Chief Engagement Officer Michael Strautmanis said the Foundation anticipated the finding of adverse effects in the Jackson Park district and reiterated the report’s findings of no adverse effects on the other districts around the OPC site.
After a 30-day comment period, the parties will consider mitigation measures for the adverse effects to produce a memorandum of agreement, “to memorialize and document the discussions about what measures can be taken to mitigate the potential effects,” Wagner said. “The 106 report does not, and is not meant to, take into account the overall project benefits or negative aspects overall. It’s literally just focused on why a resource was put on the National Register of Historic Places and if the proposed actions might compromise those proposed characteristics.”

Strautmanis expressed his pleasure that the lawsuit against the OPC’s establishment in Jackson Park had been thrown out of federal district court and with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s support for the project. “At the end of the day, this is not about the overall benefit of what this project is going to bring. It’s a pretty cold analysis of the impact on the inventory,” he said. “This is a really important stage of the process, but an important one so that we can get this process done. We have a real sense of urgency around it.”

Strautmanis observed that the OPC project has gone through the Chicago Plan Commission and City Council as-designed and that mitigation would not include design changes.

Asked how the Foundation would deal with public response to the report, Strautmanis said he anticipated “the few voices that did not want the Obama Presidential Center to come to this community [to] say the same thing that they’ve said for four years,” though he said the Foundation has changed some minds by incorporating public feedback. He foresees “an overwhelming amount of excitement and support and ideas coming into the process.”

The report found that “the undertaking diminishes the historic property’s integrity of design, materials, workmanship and feeling.” While the OPC is only set to impact a limited area, its changes “alter the legibility of the design of the cultural landscape in ways that diminish the overall integrity of spatial organization in the property as a whole.”

“They diminish the historic property’s overall integrity by altering historic, internal spatial divisions that were designed as a single entity,” wrote the DPD. The planned roadway changes would impact the area’s road network, “altering the historic property’s designed spatial organization” and the interconnected systems for pedestrians and vehicles.

DPD found that the project would transform some of the area’s contributing resources, notably the “Statue of the Republic,” in ways inconsistent with U.S. Interior Department historic property treatment standards. “New materials with modern functions differ from historic materials at a scale and intent that does not conform” to those standards, either.

“The size and scale of new buildings within the historic district diminish the intended prominence of the Museum of Science and Industry [MSI] building and alter the overall composition and design intent of balancing park scenery with specific built areas,” the report said. “The combined changes diminish the sense of a particular period of time within the historic property and impact the integrity of feeling.”

The OPC Museum tower would be built near the MSI, which Olmsted wrote was to be the only “dominating object of interest” in Jackson Park in an 1894 letter. The OPC campus would disrupt views and “diverges from the design principles of the prominence of landscape scenery and a unified composition by proposing building mass and landforms” near the lagoons “that draw specific focus on the proposed buildings,” including the Museum’s facade.

The DPD listed historic properties within an area of potential effects, which includes all of Jackson and South Shore Cultural Center parks, portions of the Midway Plaisance and Burnham Park and areas within a half-mile radius of the OPC Museum. Four historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places are in the area of potential effects, and three more were identified as eligible upon review.

OPC construction was found to have no effect on numerous historic properties, including the Promontory Point and Hyde Park East historic districts and two others in South Shore, but DPD reported that the development requires an effect evaluation concerning the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave., the William Dexter Three-flat, 1549 E. 69th Place, the Island Terrace Apartment Building, 6430 S. Stony Island Ave., Hyde Park Academy High School, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave., and the listed Jackson Park Terrace and Hyde Park-Kenwood historic districts.

In the section on the OPC on the Obama Foundation’s website, the OPC is predicted to give “new life to Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision of a cohesive, walkable and iconic Jackson Park.”

The Jackson Park district, roughly bounded by 56th and 67th streets, Stony Island Avenue and the lakefront, and the entire Midway between 59th and 60th streets and Cottage Grove and Stony Island avenues are listed on the National Register of Historic Places for their national and state significance in areas of landscape architecture, architecture, science, sculpture and urban planning. Their period of significance spans from 1875 to 1968.

The report was drafted for the NPS and the FHWA as part of ongoing National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act Section 106 reviews. It considered the effect of the OPC construction and roadway and recreational changes under noise, traffic, visual and historical analyses, as well as federal action by the two above agencies.

The federal actions surrounding the OPC construction are an amendment to agreements under the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery Act (UPARR) — a grandfathered requirement that recreational area in Jackson Park, due to be displaced by the OPC campus, must be replaced under the terms of a 1980 federal grant — and FHWA authorization of funds for construction to mitigate traffic impacts from the proposed closure of Jackson Park roadways.

It is widely assumed that the eastern end of the Midway Plaisance, between Stony Island Avenue and the railroad embankment, would be the site of UPARR-required recreational improvements. In any case, the city is planning to modify the 5.2-acre site with a fenced play area, walks, trees and recreational features; the existing “isolated low-quality wetland” on the site would be filled.

The report, however, said that such changes “would reduce and reconfigure the central lawn panel, deviating from the simple formality of open space that reflects the historic design principle of informal symmetry and balance.”

The FHWA is to address traffic changes stemming from closing Jackson Park roadways and to improve bicycle and pedestrian access and circulation within the park. Under their proposed action, improvements could occur along Lake Shore and Hayes drives, Stony Island Avenue and their intersections.

Current plans are to close the south eastbound roadway of the Midway Plaisance, Cornell Drive between 59th and 62nd streets, northbound Cornell Drive south of Hayes Drive from 65th Street to 66th Place and Marquette Drive between Stony Island Avenue and Richards Drive — all these closings are to be replaced with parkland. All of these closures would be inconsistent with Interior Department standards, the report found.

“These roads retain historic alignments and continue to define interior spaces, compose the historic sequence of people’s movement through the landscape and provide access to key historic locations as intended by the historic design of the site,” the report said. Closing them “alters the historic circulation network” by disrupting interrelated “modes of movement, views and vegetation” alters spatial organization and “reduces differentiation of landscape character areas within the historic property.”