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Obama Foundation Revises Plan, Will Build Presidential Center Garage Itself

By Sam Cholke | August 21, 2017 7:34am
 The Obama Foundation unveiled renderings of the presidential library in May.
Obama Library Renderings
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HYDE PARK — Obama Foundation officials said they no longer want to leave the responsibility of building an underground parking garage to an outside group when they presented the first revisions of plans for the presidential center’s grounds to community leaders in a recent closed-door meeting.

At a Tuesday meeting at foundation headquarters, 5235 S. Harper Court, officials said they will build the parking garage, according to nearly a dozen people who attended.

Barack Obama initially said he wanted a parking garage built on the easternmost border of the Midway Plaisance, but the project was not in the foundation’s budget. The city or another group was expected to take the lead on the funding and building of the garage.

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Foundation officials now say the foundation will build the 450-space garage, which is about half the size of the Museum of Science and Industry’s garage, and expand its project to five buildings from four on 35 acres of parkland.

That’s 14 acres more of parkland than the 21 acres of Jackson Park the city initially offered the foundation in 2016. The site in Jackson Park has expanded about 9 acres to include the area that is currently Cornell Drive, which would be closed and converted to parkland under the plan.

Since the Midway Plaisance is technically owned by the Chicago Department of Transportation and leased to the Chicago Park District for use as a park, it also creates additional bureaucratic hurdles for the foundation if it still wants to start the city approval process by the end of the year.

Obama Foundation officials declined to comment.

The meeting was the first chance to see what changes the foundation had made to plans for the presidential center’s campus since a series of contentious public meetings in June

Two pedestrian bridges connecting the garage to the campus and the campus to Wooded Island have now been removed from the plans.

“I’m glad that’s not there, they obviously heard feedback at some point from people that it wasn’t a good idea, and that’s not there,” said Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy for Landmarks Illinois, who was at the meeting.

Other changes include dropping a curve that was to be added to Stony Island Avenue near a proposed water feature at the northernmost end of the campus.

The water feature had drawn criticism because it was to replace a perennial garden designed by the first woman landscape architect for the Chicago Park District and that’s one of the oldest gardens in the city.

The garden still will be altered, adding a depression in the middle, or possibly creating a more formal water garden to collect storm water, according to people at the meeting, but the 300-foot diameter circle garden will remain.

Louis McCurry, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, said she was happy to hear that the Women’s Bench on the Midway Plaisance, which honors some of the first women from Chicago elected to public office, will remain where it is and will be incorporated into the parking garage, which is proposed to have a landscaped roof with lawns and areas for barbecuing.

Plans for an athletic center, which YMCA and Chicago Park District officials have worried will compete with their athletic facilities less than two blocks away, have gained little structure in their programming or design.

“If the athletic center is just going to be there for President Obama to play basketball, it probably shouldn’t be in a public park,” Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, said she told foundation officials.

Others at the meeting said they were told by foundation officials that the athletic center was not yet committed to any specific programming and is still looking for partners.

Community leaders said their colleagues were critical of the plans, but the conversation was constructive and cordial.

There was criticism that the changes to the plans since they were unveiled in May were minor considering the amount of feedback the center has gotten from scores of community groups.

“It’s the same diagram, but they took the bridges out,” said Margaret Schmid of Jackson Park Watch, a group that has been critical of how closed planning for the center has been.

Most community leaders asked said they could not pick out any changes that had been made in response to a specific community concern they had expressed to the foundation or heard expressed by others.

Changes to the landscape design are expected to be brought to the wider public at some point in the coming weeks, but foundation officials declined to say when they would schedule the next round of public meetings.