Obama Foundation rebuts ‘adverse effects’ impacts


Staff writer

The Obama Foundation touted the planned closing of Cornell Drive as a benefit to Jackson Park and argued that it, plus the establishment of the Obama Presidential Center and other associated changes, will help return the landscape to Frederick Law Olmsted’s original vision.

Writing to the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (DPD) in response to the city’s assessment that identified “adverse effects” to Jackson Park from the OPC plans, Executive Director Robbin Cohen said the plans “will significantly increase and enhance recreational, educational and cultural opportunities for the community” and result in “an improved, more accessible, revitalized Jackson Park.”

“From the very outset of this process, we have made substantial efforts in planning and designing the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) to ensure that Olmsted’s iconic vision for the park is honored and promoted,” Cohen wrote. “Indeed, one reason for locating the OPC in Jackson Park is to enhance the park experience for as many people as possible.”

Cohen identified the closing of Cornell Drive as “perhaps the most historically significant beneficial impact of the proposed undertaking,” saying the replacement of the six-lane, high-speed highway — built during Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration in a bid to better connect the Chicago Skyway with Lake Shore Drive — with a bicycle and pedestrian promenade would both better reflect Olmsted’s vision and reconnect “currently disjointed areas of the park.”

Furthermore, Cohen said that reconverting 10 acres of roadways into park space and the development of the OPC campus will result in a net gain of 3 to 4 acres of parkland, improving pedestrian circulation both within Jackson Park and into the Midway Plaisance. Currently, pedestrians must cross many traffic lanes to get from one to the other.

Cohen also noted that planned views of the OPC tower from the Wooded Island reflect “the original design principle of emphasizing the stark contrast between the natural landscape … and the highly visible adjacent formal structures of the World’s Columbian Exhibition.”

“The proposed height of the museum building significantly reduces the building’s footprint within the park, and 29,000 square feet of the museum building will be below grade,” Cohen continued. “Moreover, the proposed landscaping plan features wooded areas, such as the Woodland Walk, which will diminish the perceived height of the museum building when viewed from the south and the east.”

The campus’ stone-and-glass construction template was “selected to echo the buildings that made up the World’s Columbian Exhibition” like the Museum of Science and Industry, Cohen said.

Cohen also noted the cultural, educational, recreational, traffic, safety, ecological and economic improvements the OPC will bring, calling the Jackson Park plans “consistent with Chicago’s 125-year tradition of establishing museums in its parks.”

She also highlighted the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery Act-mandated improvements planned to the eastern end of the Midway Park “will provide much-needed storm water management improvements that will make the land more usable.”

Cohen said that the OPC plans were drafted with the community’s feedback and concerns in mind.

“Knowing that community members care about preserving open space within Jackson Park, the Foundation proposed to locate the OPC buildings at the urban edge of the park perimeter, an area initially intended to serve as a buffer or transition zone between the city and the park,” she wrote.

The museum building was designed as a tower to “occupy a small footprint and take up as little parkland as possible.” She observed that the forum and public library rooftops will be publically accessible and, while the other components will not be, she said they occupy ⅓ of 1% of Jackson Park’s total parkland.

In addition to berms and planted buffers, the OPC designs incorporate green roofs and submerged spaces “to minimize impacts to historic views and vistas,” Cohen said. Courtyards by the museum tower and library were shrunk to provide more parkland after community input.

Cohen wrote that the Foundation looks forward to consulting with stakeholders to discuss what actions should be taken to address the identified adverse effects and produce a memorandum of agreement.

“The Foundation will participate in this process in good faith, working with the City of Chicago, the federal agencies, other public and private entities and community organizations,” Cohen wrote. “The Section 106 process is working; it has already produced clear benefits, and the Foundation believes it will continue to do so.”