Revised Obama Presidential Center Plans Submitted to City Hall
Some changes for the planned Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.
The Obama Foundation formally submitted plans for the revised project Wednesday to the City Council.
The foundation says it made the changes after extensive community input, but are they enough to silence all the critics, and will city officials OK the plans?
The project is still set to undergo further revisions, even as it has formally been submitted to the city’s Plan Commission.
Most notable among the cosmetic changes: the parking garage that was to take over a portion of the Midway Plaisance will go underground in Jackson Park. The foundation also says it has added more green space, including a pathway that will connect to the nearby Museum of Science and Industry. The center’s main building has been modified to narrow its footprint. The proposed height is 235 feet – eight stories with several mezzanine levels. The uppermost floors, they say, will not be reserved for the former president’s offices, but for public gathering spaces. And there is what appears to be a mesh façade of letters on two of the building faces – they say they are toying with potentially having those letters spell out something meaningful, they just don’t know what yet. The foundation says these changes were with the public’s input in mind.
“There were some comments about the first version of the tower being too monolithic, too bulky, taking up too much of a footprint,” said Obama Foundation CEO David Simas. “So what we’ve done with the designers is to slim down the building.”
The group Friends of the Parks says it has begrudgingly accepted the fact that the center will be built in Jackson Park, and they’re happy that the parking garage has been moved. But, they say, slimmed down or not, they will still be a thorn in the side of the foundation over that museum tower.
“We’re not happy with any building whatsoever in a park,” said Friends of the Parks President Juanita Irizarry. “The designers of the park expected only the building that is now the Museum of Science of Industry to be in the park. The rest of the park was built to have natural landscapes, and this building blocks the view through the park to the lakefront. So we’ll continue to talk to the foundation about that.”
Earlier this week, a group of university of Chicago faculty banded together to send a letter to the foundation opposing the project on the grounds that it shouldn’t be built in a park, that it should include a written community benefits agreement to ensure the economic boom trickles down to the neighborhood folks, and that the project would cause a traffic nightmare. They say they are less than impressed with the foundation’s willingness to listen to the community.
“They have listened only grudgingly,” said one of the organizers, W. J. T. Mitchell, a professor of English and art history. “Often, they’ll do a sales pitch for an hour or two, and hand out a questionnaire. They’ve pulled back on putting a parking lot on the Midway, and modified the design of the building. But there are really more fundamental questions they need to answer.”
The plan does call for the closing of Cornell Drive and some other thoroughfares near the park, and the widening of others to make up for it at a cost to taxpayers of about $100 million.
Meanwhile, Simas says the foundation is committed to giving the community all of the benefits they are asking for, without the mechanism of a formal community benefits agreement.
“For a project of this size, a majority of the economic benefit flows through the minority and local firms here in Chicago,” Simas said. “The requirement for vendors and subcontractors is 50 percent.”
Now that the plans have been officially submitted to the city’s Plan Commission, there will be more community hearings, and expect more modifications to the design.
Construction on the $375 million project could likely begin later this year.
Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz
Jan. 8: The Obama Foundation has given in to criticism, making a change to its plans. The decision comes as the Obama Presidential Center gained new critics: more than 100 University of Chicago faculty members.
Sept. 27: Mayor Emanuel and state lawmakers are quietly hatching a plan to give $100 million in state money to the Obama Presidential Center. Is Illinois ready to pony up?
Sept. 14: Community members get a chance to address key figures behind the Obama Presidential Center. A live report from the meeting.