August 11, 2019

Obama Center Will Have “Adverse Effect” on Jackson Park, Study Finds

The Obama Center's projected location in Jackson Park.

Courtesy of Obama Foundation

The planned Obama Presidential Center (OPC) will have an “adverse effect” on historic properties within Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance, according to a report on the potential impacts of development released by city officials.

The report, prepared by the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development, examined the impact of existing OPC plans on the historical landscape of Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance. The report assessed  the OPC’s potential to affect area historic landmarks, as well as the complex’s impact on the aggregate historical and aesthetic properties of the entire neighborhood.

At a news conference on Tuesday, July 30, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot remarked that the report’s results were not surprising and  that she would soon weigh in on the effects of the OPC on its surrounding neighborhood.

“It is a big honor and opportunity for us to have this presidential center coming to Chicago, particularly for the South Side….I don’t think I should force anybody to do anything” in regards to the OPC’s development, Lightfoot added, striking a more conciliatory tone towards the OPC.

The report comes on the heels of another anti-OPC measure in City Hall:  Aldermen Leslie Hairston of the 5th ward and Jeanette Taylor of the 20th ward, the wards that encompass the planned development, earlier this month filed an ordinance to compel the signing of a Community Benefits Agreement before OPC construction begins,. Among other initiatives, the ordinance seeks to impose strict requirements for low-income housing in new development surrounding the OPC.

The OPC is planned to be built on a plot of land in Jackson Park adjacent to the Midway Plaisance, just south of the Museum of Science and Industry. Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance are designated as a historic property under the National Register of Historic Places, meaning that the federal government has deemed them culturally or historically significant and therefore deserving of protection.

The report concluded that the OPC would “alter, directly or indirectly, characteristics of the historic property that qualify it for inclusion in the National Register.”

The intangible “characteristics” that the report writes are manifest in Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance derive from a primary “period of significance” for the area, between 1875 and 1968. During that period of time, the neighborhood was shaped by world events, such as the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, as well as by landscape architects.

The Obama Center, the report writes, will “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.” Matters of concern include the disruption of Jackson Park’s existing road network and physical changes to the landscape. The report also found the size and scope of the complex’s planned building concerning, citing their potential to dwarf other landmarks in the area, such as the Museum of Science and Industry. The report writes that such changes may undermine the historic and aesthetic uniqueness of Jackson Park.

Skeptics of the Obama Presidential Center concurred with the report’s findings.

Margaret Schmid of Jackson Park Watch, an Illinois non-profit that opposes many aspects of the planned OPC, said in a statement to The Maroon that the Report demonstrates the Obama Center’s potential to undermine Jackson Park’s historic beauty.

Protect Our Parks member Herbert Caplan, in a statement to The Maroon, concurred with the report’s findingd. The group recently filed a lawsuit to block the Center. The report “essentially confirms every important issue raised by [Protect Our Parks] in its lawsuit to require relocating the OPC from historic Jackson Park to an underserved south side neighborhood,” Caplan added.

More bureaucratic scrutiny of the OPC’s impact on the landscapes of Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance will follow this report’s release. As required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, federal agencies, in collaboration with historic preservation officers from the State of Illinois, will soon prepare another report, this time on how to avoid or minimize the potential for adverse effects outlined in July’s release.

Neither representatives from the Obama Foundation nor representatives from the University of Chicago responded to requests for comment.