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Federal review of Obama Presidential Center heads toward the finish line

Slow and Steady

Federal review of Obama Presidential Center heads toward the finish line

The revised plan for the Obama Presidential Center would install a 235-foot-tall granite-clad museum tower in Chicago’s Jackson Park. (Courtesy Obama Foundation)

Nine months after Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA) released a revised version of its design for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Chicago, it looks like the controversial plan is close to clearing its last set of hurdles.

In case you lost track, here’s a refresher on the OPC’s progress: The decision to build the $500 million, 20-acre campus in Jackson Park prompted concerns about the monumental shift in usage patterns the project would bring to the historic site. (Designed by Olmsted and Vaux, the park was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.) These concerns triggered two separate sets of federal reviews in late 2017, with the plans falling under the scrutiny of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). What followed was a lengthy, lawsuit-fraught process as community groups and The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF, a consulting party in the federal review process) tried to halt the required land transfer, arguing the OPC wouldn’t be a free, government-run open library, but a privately run museum. That attempt failed in June of last year.

Now, as the Chicago Sun-Times reports, it looks like the federal reviews could wrap up by the end of this year. Additionally, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has thrown her backing behind the OPC and on July 16, during a digital town hall, City Hall confirmed it wouldn’t require the nonprofit Obama Foundation to replace the 19.3 acres it will be taking in the park with green space elsewhere.

City Hall had joined with activists to hold the virtual event and discuss the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), an understanding of how the OPC’s reorganization of the venerable park would be mitigated or recompensed elsewhere. In May, it looked like another major hurdle had been thrown in the project’s path, when the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office called for additional design review and the possibility of relocating the OPC further south to maintain the link between the park and Midway Plaisance. While the state preservation office’s concerns were considered—the most recent MOA meeting was pushed from June 17 to July 16 so that they could be addressed—the agency ultimately chose not to pursue their recommendations.

rendering of a plaza
Michael Van Valkenburgh will introduce a series of landscape elements into the complex, including a two-acre children’s play area and “wetlands walk.” (Courtesy Obama Foundation)

With all that out of the way, it seems the major roadblocks have been cleared. However, the TCLF, which has spoken out about the changes the OPC would bring to the park, including the removal of historic trees, has thus far decried the approvals process as Trumpian. Prior to the Trump administration’s formal rollback of NEPA implementation, it appeared that the City of Chicago and the Federal Highway Administration were evaluating the adverse effects on the park using the anticipated, stripped-back version of NEPA guidelines rather than the rules-as-written at the time.

With the federal review process winding down, a final ruling on the Obama Presidential Center will likely come in the next few months. AN will follow this story up as the project approaches the finish line.