Barack, Paper, Scissors

Chicago slashes trees for Obama Presidential Center

Landscape Architecture Midwest News Preservation
The campus will feature hiking and biking trails that integrate with Jackson Park. (Courtesy Obama Foundation)

Up to 40 trees, some of them decades old, were reportedly cut down in Chicago’s historic Jackson Park on August 6 as part of construction associated with the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) campus.

Despite a pending lawsuit and ongoing federal review, construction crews were reportedly spotted demolishing baseball fields in Jackson Park to make way for an OPC-funded track-and-field facility in the same spot. The new field is being constructed at a cost of $3.5 million to compensate the city and Chicago Park District for the current track and field that will be swallowed up by the 19.3-acre campus.

The $500 million campus, master planned by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, has already seen its fair share of pushback from the community since its unveiling in 2016. First, a controversial parking facility was moved underground after complaints that its presence would spoil the Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux-designed landscape and the accompanying Midway Plaisance. The buildings themselves were redesigned to sit within the park better the next day.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, OPC executives had pledged not to cut down any trees until the project had passed review and they had obtained the proper permits. However, this promise appears to have only counted work on the main campus, and not associated work. As The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) points out, the new field is inextricably linked to the main project and is tied to the OPC’s construction timetable.

When the Sun-Times asked about the discrepancy, Obama Foundation officials reportedly declined to confirm that the new field was part of the OPC, telling the paper that “the construction schedule put forward by the Chicago Park District ensures the new track will be ready for students and fall sports leagues.”

Additionally, the federal lawsuit filed in May by preservationist group Protect Our Parks was rebuked by lawyers from the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District in June, who argued that as the City Council hasn’t given the project approval yet, any lawsuit was premature. The Chicago City Council won’t vote on the project until the fall, and no construction is supposed to occur until the twice-delayed federal review concludes. According to the Chicago Tribune, the groundbreaking for the campus has been pushed to 2019. No update has been given on whether this will change the projected 2021 opening date.

On August 8, TCLF delivered a letter with their concerns to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a federal advisory body on historic preservation. The felling of the trees in a park listed in the National Register of Historic Places and what the Foundation feels is a lack of due diligence by the City of Chicago to look into the site’s archeological significance were addressed. AN will follow this story up as more news about the Center breaks.

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