YEARS-LONG FED­ERAL RE­VIEW OF OBAMA CEN­TER IN JACK­SON PARK IN FI­NAL STAGES

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - LYNN SWEET D.C. DECODER lsweet@sun­times.com | @lynnsweet

There is an end in sight for a pair of years-long fed­eral re­views of the Obama Pres­i­den­tial Cen­ter, and based on a Thurs­day brief­ing we now know City Hall will not in­sist on re­place­ment land out­side of Jack­son Park to make up for the 19.3 acres the com­plex will oc­cupy.

We also learned that a po­ten­tial road­block did not pan out. A May 26 let­ter from the Illi­nois State His­toric

Preser­va­tion Of­fice to fed­eral and city of­fi­cials called for an “ad­di­tional de­sign re­view,” sug­gest­ing mov­ing the Obama Cen­ter far­ther south in Jack­son Park. The state agency is not pur­su­ing the mat­ter.

It now looks like the re­views by mul­ti­ple fed­eral agen­cies man­dated by the Na­tional En­vi­ron­men­tal Pol­icy Act — known as NEPA — and the Na­tional His­toric Preser­va­tion Act could be done — and agree­ments signed by the par­ties — by the end of 2020. The first meet­ing of the var­i­ous stake­hold­ers for the fed­eral re­view was on Dec. 1, 2017.

The rea­son for these re­views is be­cause for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama de­cided to build his pres­i­den­tial cen­ter in a park listed on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places. Jack­son Park, de­signed by the famed land­scape ar­chi­tects Fred­er­ick Law Olm­sted and Calvert Vaux, was added to the reg­is­ter in 1972.

City Hall held a we­bi­nar Thurs­day to dis­cuss a draft Memo of Agree­ment — known as a MOA — cov­er­ing pro­pos­als to mit­i­gate preser­va­tion is­sues. Mainly, City Hall would doc­u­ment the park and put together some in­ter­pre­tive ma­te­ri­als and pre­serve the English Stone Com­fort Sta­tion near the west side of the park and re­store the Statue of the Repub­lic at East Hayes Drive and South Richards Drive.

From dis­cus­sions at the we­bi­nar — and a sub­se­quent call I made to City Hall — I con­firmed that the city will not push the Obama Foun­da­tion for 19.3 acres out­side of Jack­son Park to be de­vel­oped as new park­land. That was on the ta­ble in 2015.

Naomi Davis, the pres­i­dent and founder of Blacks in Green, said there should be re­place­ment acres out­side of Jack­son Park and the ad­ja­cent Mid­way Plai­sance. She said at the we­bi­nar those new “green spa­ces” could be “pri­vately stew­arded as com­mu­nity land trusts, public spa­ces.”

The brief­ing ses­sion brought together city, state and fed­eral gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and ac­tivists — for, against, and some­what inbetween — who have been deeply in­volved in the Obama Cen­ter de­vel­op­ment for years.

Erin Adams, pres­i­dent of South Side Neigh­bors for Hope, a sup­porter of the Obama Cen­ter, wrote in a side chat dur­ing the we­bi­nar, if peo­ple re­viewed the plans “with­out dis­torted lens, they might be pleas­antly sur­prised how much it will im­prove the park.”

Brenda Nelms, a co-pres­i­dent of Jack­son Park Watch, said the MOA does not ad­e­quately ad­dress pro­pose ways to mit­i­gate ad­verse im­pacts to changes in Jack­son Park.

Af­ter the we­bi­nar, Nelms sum­ma­rized her crit­i­cisms, say­ing in a state­ment the pro­posed MOA “does noth­ing to pre­serve a cen­tral por­tion of Jack­son Park as it has stood for over a cen­tury, with its open space and nat­u­ral ar­eas. The Women’s Gar­den would be dis­mem­bered, and the dis­tinc­tive Olm­sted cir­cu­la­tion pat­tern would be erad­i­cated. There would be no pro­vi­sion for new park­land to re­place the 19.3 acres that would be lost de­spite how much COVID has height­ened our aware­ness of the im­por­tance of out­door space and public park­land.”

The de­bate over the use of a his­toric park has over the years — and on Thurs­day — ex­posed race and class fault lines in Chicago when it comes to the ques­tions of whose voices should pre­vail in the fate of a his­toric park.

These mat­ters take on a new im­por­tance in this new era we’re in, as the na­tion is grap­pling with racial in­jus­tice in the wake of the killing of Ge­orge Floyd.

Perri Irmer, the pres­i­dent of DuSable Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory — who backs the pro­posed MOA — said the “as­sumed in­ten­tions of the de­sign­ers,” which I took as an Olm­sted ref­er­ence, should not be put “ahead of the com­mu­ni­ties that (the Obama Cen­ter) will ben­e­fit.”

Stephanie Franklin, the pres­i­dent of the Ni­chols Park Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil — the park is at 1355 E. 53rd — op­poses the MOA.

Said Franklin. “We be­lieve the first Black pres­i­dent of the United States de­serves to be rec­og­nized, hon­ored, for what he ac­com­plished, not re­mem­bered for what he de­stroyed.”

SCOTT OL­SON/GETTY IM­AGES

For­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama points out fea­tures of the pro­posed Obama Pres­i­den­tial Cen­ter, which is sched­uled to be built in nearby Jack­son Park, dur­ing a gath­er­ing at the South Shore Cul­tural Cen­ter in May 2017.

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