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Obama Library May Threaten Parks' Historic Place Status, Activists Worry

By Sam Cholke | January 23, 2015 5:35am
 A section of Washington Park is considered the favored spot for the Barack Obama Presidential Library by many South Siders.
A section of Washington Park is considered the favored spot for the Barack Obama Presidential Library by many South Siders.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

HYDE PARK — The proposal to put the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Jackson or Washington parks has preservationists worried any major changes to the parks could result in the loss of their federal recognition as historic places — a designation yanked from Soldier Field after its renovation.

Both parks are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a list of more than 80,000 locations or buildings considered to play a significant part of the nation’s history.

The status has been fiercely defended at both parks, but advocates feel that might be threatened by the University of Chicago's proposal to put Obama's library in one of them.

Soldier Field was stripped of its federal recognition in 2004 because the renovated stadium “no longer retains its historic integrity” after a $660 million renovation, according to a report by the National Park Service, which oversees the registry.

“I don’t think that’s something we want to happen to either one of these parks,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

The Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks’ place on the register offers considerable prestige, but precious few protections. But parks advocates and preservationists have successfully used those limited protections to successfully halt plans at Washington Park in the past.

“I do not agree with any buildings or structures in a public parks, especially historic parks, period,” said Madiem Kawa, president of the Washington Park Conservancy.

Kawa, Friends of the Parks co-founder Vicky Ranney and others successfully used the protections offered by the registry to derail a $3.8 million plan by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2011 that would have converted Washington Park’s meadow into a marsh and blocked the lagoon with a 15-foot barrier of reeds.

In this go around, those protections have not yet been triggered.

Karen Mudar, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, said the current proposal in City Council to transfer ownership of the park to the city from the Chicago Park District would not get the feds involved.

However, a request for federal money, permits or licenses would be necessary to set off section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which would open up more plans and documents for the library to public scrutiny and hearings by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, according to the agencies involved.

Friends of the Parks, Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago and other groups have all said they would be heavily involved in any federal- or state-level review of any proposed buildings in a park.

“The process is not designed to stop a federal undertaking, only to ensure that mitigation, if required, is carried out,” Mudar said.

Any need for state money or permits would trigger a similar review by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Rachel Leibowitz, manager of the preservation services division of the agency, said the state could want to come in to do archeological surveys and other assessments before any buildings were constructed.

The proposed 21-acre Washington Park site near Garfield Boulevard and Martin Luther King Drive includes the city’s first tree arboretum and bur oak trees that pre-date the 145-year-old park. The 20-acre site in Jackson Park near 60th Street and Stony Island Avenue was the site of the horticulture building during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Leibowitz said it was possible the federal and state government would not get involved at all if the library was entirely privately funded and handed off to the National Archives’ Office of Presidential Libraries.

The Illinois House is currently considering supporting the library with $100 million in tax dollars if it’s located in the state.

The Obama Foundation, which is leading the process of selecting a site for the library, did not respond to specific questions on whether the library could threaten the parks' historic registry status.

"As the Foundation reviews the details of each proposal for the future Obama Presidential Center, we are taking into consideration a number of ideas and concerns from the local communities as they are raised," a spokesman said in an emailed statement. "In the weeks ahead, we will be reaching out to community leaders to solicit additional feedback as needed in advance of our site selection recommendation. Once a site has been selected, the Foundation will continue to work with local institutions, governments and citizens to ensure they are included in the process of constructing the Obama Presidential Center."

The foundation has already raised $2.9 million, and possibly as much as $6.2 million, according to a list of donors released Jan. 15.

The city will have multiple opportunities to review the proposed library both in City Council and in the Chicago Plan Commission and Community Development Commission. The bodies would need to approve an expected change to a planned development zoning necessary to build the library at any site in the city.

The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

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