Obama Presidential Center Plans Concern Some Chicagoans | WBEZ
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Some Chicagoans Concerned About How Obama Center Will Change Jackson Park

Concerns about roadway and landscape changes to Chicago’s Jackson Park for construction of the proposed Obama Presidential Center don’t mean the campus won’t be built, federal officials said at a public meeting Monday night.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) last week determined the OPC will have an “adverse effect” to the Jackson Park Landscape District and Midway Plaisance. A federal review is required because the South Side public park is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“An adverse effect doesn’t mean that a project can’t move forward,” said Matt Fuller, of the FHWA. “It just means that we need to go to the next step of the process to look for the avoidance, minimization and mitigation efforts for the project.”

Fuller said it’s not unusual to have adverse effects on historic properties.

The city is proposing permanent street closures to accommodate the $500 million OPC, which will include a museum, plaza, public library and forum. The draft assessment report said the “changes impact how Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance reflect conscious decisions made by the Olmsted firm in determining the organization, forms, patterns of circulation, relationships between major features, arrangement of vegetation, and views,” referring to Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the park in the late 19th century.

Monday’s public meeting at the Logan Center for the Arts got cut short after too many audience members yelled out questions instead of writing them down on a comment card. Meanwhile, the city made clear that the OPC would not be moved from Jackson Park, which drew applause from the crowd. In the lobby, city planning department staffers hosted an open house and took questions next to poster boards that explained the federal review process.

After a 30-day public comment period, the FHWA will consider feedback and eventually “resolve adverse effects.” The final step involves consulting with the city, as well as state and federal agencies. A memorandum of agreement will be finalized this fall once an agreement is reached on how adverse effects are resolved.

“An adverse effect in this instant just means a change, and we’re bringing positive change to Jackson Park. This is the normal course of business and totally what we expected,” said Courtney Williams, a spokeswoman for the Obama Foundation, which has said it won’t break ground until the federal review is finished.

Margaret Schmid of Jackson Park Watch said a lot of people are concerned about a tall building being erected in a park.

“It’s just not appropriate. It’s just not compatible,” Schmid said. “Right-sizing that building significantly lower — a lot of people in the community would sign right off on that.”

Schmid also said she wants the federal review process to reconsider plans to close Cornell Drive. The city’s proposed roadway changes include permanent closures of Cornell Drive between 59th and 63rd streets and the northbound section of Cornell Drive between 65th and 68th streets, as well as Marquette Drive between Stony Island Avenue and Richards Drive. The closures will create a continuous Jackson Park linked to the Museum of Science and Industry.

But those closures concern Calumet Heights resident David Welch and many other South Side residents.

“It will create a traffic mess,” Welch said. “Parking will spill over into the surrounding neighborhoods, and we will have major gridlock.”

Even after this assessment is done, a second federal review is needed before the OPC is built. The other is under the National Environmental Policy Act, which will assess the project’s environmental impact. It is to be complete by spring 2020.

Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s South Side reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.

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