After federal assessment, what’s next for the Obama Presidential Center?

Officials are seeking public comment after a review found that the development could harm the historical status of the Jackson Park Historic Landscape District and Midway Plaisance.

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Obama Presidential Center site plan

Following last week’s release of a federal review finding that the Obama Presidential Center will have an adverse effect on some historical properties, one common question from community members is: what’s next?

On Monday, officials from the agencies responsible for the assessment held two meetings on the University of Chicago campus to discuss the findings and the process moving forward. 

“During the next step of the process, we look at what all those adverse effects are for these historic properties, and we look for ways to avoid the impacts first, then to minimize effects,” said Matt Fuller, environmental engineer at the Federal Highway Administration, the lead agency behind the assessment.

“The third option is mitigation, if the effects can’t be avoided or minimized then you look at what mitigation options might be. And that’s where we really look to the community” for what kind of mitigation efforts might help to offset that impact to the historic process, he said.

The Assessment of Effects, which is required under Section 106 of the federal National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, documents the impact the center’s planned construction  will have on historical aspects of Jackson Park and the surrounding community.

During the meetings, Abby Monroe of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development explained the review, which found most — 29 out of 36 — of the historic properties would not be affected by the changes involved with construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. 

It also notes that six historic properties would be affected but not adversely. The plan would have an “adverse effect” or could harm the historical status of the Jackson Park Historic Landscape District and Midway Plaisance.

The plaisance is mostly an open lawn lined with trees,park benches, a kiosk, “a low quality wetland” and the Cheney-Goode Memorial placed there in 1932, according to the report.

The current city plans include dedicating 5.2 acres to replace lost recreational space on the eastern portion of the Midway Plaisance, between Stony Island Avenue and the Metra railroad.

Another question that drew cheers and boos on Monday was whether there was a chance the center would not be built in Jackson Park, but Monroe made it clear the location is not at stake in this process, according to the Hyde Park Herald.

“The location itself is not something that would change,” she said to the Hyde Park Herald. “The city is proposing Jackson Park and the Midway as the location for these projects, so that is, at this point, what the project entails.”

Some attendees left the meeting feeling unheard, calling it a “blow-over,” according to Block Club Chicago.

“People ask a question but don’t really get an answer to it … I wanted to have a question-and-answer, back-and-forth conversation,” said Torrence Cooks, who told Block Club Chicago he came to the meeting with an open mind.

The comments will be evaluated and used to determine whether the AOE needs to be revised. Then the finalized AOE will be released to the public, officials said.

The public comment period is open until 5 p.m. on Aug. 30th. Officials are looking for answers to the following questions: do you agree with the assessment, and if not why? What properties are you most concerned with? What suggestions do you have to lessen the impact?

Comments can be sent to abby.monroe@cityofchicago.org.

Following the public comment, the next step will be officially issuing the Memorandum of Agreement that is compiled and given to all of the following organizations, who all must sign it: The Federal Highway Administration, National Park Service, State Historic Preservation Office and the Advisory Council of Historic Preservation.

The Illinois Department of Transportation, City of Chicago, and the Chicago Park District will also be invited to sign. 

All of the consulting partes will be invited to concur with the findings, but their agreement will not be required to move forward.

A public meeting on the MOA is scheduled for October 2019. And the Section 106 process is scheduled to be completed by November 2019. A National Environmental Policy Act federal review will then begin next year with a public review period scheduled at the end of 2020.

You can read the full report here.

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