Fast Tracked

Obama Presidential Center breezes through planning and zoning hurdles, but continues to kindle community concern

Architecture Midwest Urbanism
Obama Presidential Center breezes through planning and zoning hurdles, but continues to kindle community concern (Courtesy Obama Foundation)
Obama Presidential Center breezes through planning and zoning hurdles, but continues to kindle community concern (Courtesy Obama Foundation)

The Obama Presidential Center (OPC) passed two substantial hurdles this month as the Chicago Planning Commission and Zoning Committees both voted in overwhelming support of the development. Amidst a seven-hour hearing of public comment coming from a variety of Chicago voices, broad strokes of the plan were given a “yay” vote from 15 of the 22 planning commission members on May 17. The Chicago City Council signed off on the $500 million project on May 22, passing various zoning approvals.

The stage is now set for the construction of a 235-foot-tall building with cultural exhibit and office space, two additional cultural buildings, and an athletic and community center.  The Planning Commission vote also includes a 450-car underground parking garage and clears the way for the Obama Foundation (OF) to close public right-of-ways. While these votes were expected to breeze through both the Planning Commission and Zoning Committees, departments within the City of Chicago had already created conditions that allow obstacles to be easily bypassed, from the rerouting and closing of streets to downplaying the effects the OPC will have on historical aspects of Jackson Park. While the agenda divided the vote into multiple components, all of the items were treated as one.

Public comment during the May 17th Planning Commission meeting included statements from the Chicago History Museum, Preservation Chicago, Jackson Park Watch, The Woodlawn Organization, Chicago aldermen and tenured Chicago activists. The commission did not address the federal lawsuit filed on May 14 by Protect our Parks, Inc. that accused the Obama Foundation of an “institutional bait and switch,” claiming that the original purpose of the transfer of public park land to the OF, a non-government entity, was to house the official Obama Federal Library, to be administered by the U.S. National Records and Archives Administration. As the OPF will not house Barack Obama’s official documents, the suit claims, transfer of park land to a private entity violates the park district code.

A federal lawsuit has been filed in an attempt to block the Obama Foundation from building in Jackson Park (Eric Rogers/Flikr)

The Planning Commission also failed to address a community benefits agreement proposed by the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition (CBA), a group of organizations that includes ​the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Black Youth Project 100, and Friends of the Parks. Under the ordinance proposed by the CBA, the OPC, the University of Chicago, and the city would make targeted investments within a five-mile radius, including economic development, education, employment, housing, sustainability and transportation. At a community meeting held at McCormick Place last February, Barack Obama coolly responded to the call for a CBA: “The concern I have with community benefits agreements, in this situation, is it’s not inclusive enough,” Obama remarked. “I would then be siding with who? What particular organizations would end up speaking for everybody in that community?”

Also present at the Planning Commission meeting were OPC architects Todd Williams and Billie Tsien, who are in the process of selecting materials for each of the structures that complement neighboring buildings like the Museum of Science and Industry and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, a building of their own design on the campus of the University of Chicago. While neither Tsien nor Williams spoke during the hearing, Williams implied during a public meeting in February that the integrity of Jackson Park has already been compromised over time.

Designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Jackson Park was the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and is one of Chicago’s most valuable and significant pieces of public land. An archaeological evaluation performed as a part of the project’s federal compliance uncovered artifacts and ephemera from the World’s Columbian Exposition, as well as architectural materials relating to the fair’s buildings, many of which set the course for how Chicago would look going into the 20th century. Despite the importance of these findings for Chicago, both the Illinois State Archaeological Survey and the chief archaeologist for the Illinois Department of Transportation have determined the presence of these artifacts to be insignificant. It is expected that a federal review of above-ground resources will reach a similar conclusion-that the OPC project will not have an adverse effect on the historic landscape of Jackson Park or the surrounding historic districts and buildings.

At the center of the opposition is a $175 million-dollar plan to overhaul and close multiple roads within and around Jackson Park, a critical component to the Tiger Woods-designed PGA golf course slated to open in 2020, a year behind the OPC. The golf course would combine the existing Jackson Park and South Shore courses and fragment the South Shore Nature Sanctuary in favor of unobstructed views of the Chicago skyline for golfers. While the OF has not stated they are in support of the golf course proposal, many board members of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, an organization in support of the plan, have ties with the Obama Foundation or Barack Obama himself.

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