State Preservation Agency Finally Weighs In on Obama Center, Calls for Design Review

Design rendering of the Obama Presidential Center. (Courtesy of The Obama Foundation)Design rendering of the Obama Presidential Center. (Courtesy of The Obama Foundation)

The ongoing federal review of plans to construct the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park hit a minor speed bump when a previously unheard-from key player weighed in with comments on the controversial project, causing a scheduled step in the approval process to be delayed.

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A draft of what’s called a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) — which would outline measures required to mitigate the “adverse effects” of the Obama Center’s roadway reconfigurations on the park’s historic features — was set to be released and discussed during a June 17 webinar. On June 12, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which is overseeing the MOA, notified participants that the meeting was being shifted to July 16.

The memorandum is one of the final stages of the federal Section 106 review process, which was established as part of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (see sidebar, below).

Those who’ve been closely following the proceedings attribute the last-minute delay to late-breaking comments from the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office, which were sent to the FHWA in a letter dated May 26. The office is a state agency, as opposed to an independent nonprofit organization such as Preservation Chicago, and its responsibilities include reviewing construction projects that might affect cultural resources.

Most notably, the agency’s letter called for “additional design review,” specifically requesting that mitigation considerations include shifting the proposed location of the Obama Presidential Center south in Jackson Park. Such a move would allow the connection between Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance to remain intact, the letter stated.

This request, along with others outlined in ISHPO’S comments, is believed to have prompted federal agencies and the city to postpone the issuance of the draft Memorandum of Agreement, said Herb Caplan, founder of Protect Our Parks, which is currently embroiled in a legal battle against the center.

Reconfiguring the site or outright moving the center out of Jackson Park have been the two most common themes among opponents of the center’s design and location, according to FHWA.

That the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office echoed some of those same thoughts was a welcome surprise to groups that have been attempting to put the brakes on the center’s fast track to approval and, ultimately, construction.

“It was significant they came out as they did. They had been basically silent, they had not shown their cards. It wasn’t known how they would fall,” said Brenda Nelms, a Hyde Park resident and co-president of Jackson Park Watch, an organization opposed to the center’s site in Jackson Park.

ISHPO seems to be focused on preserving the spirit of Frederick Law Olmsted’s design for Jackson Park, Nelms said, and perhaps that will lead to some kind of compromise.

What, if anything, does this really mean for the Obama Center?

The Federal Highway Administration has maintained throughout the Section 106 review that it only has authority to consider transportation issues, not the overall impact of the Obama Center on Jackson Park and its surrounding neighborhoods. But in a letter dated June 9, FHWA asked the city to explain itself with regards to requests to relocate or outright move the site:

“We believe it would be beneficial … for the City to respond to these suggestions and to explain its position regarding alterations to the location of the OPC site and any design flexibilities that exist.”

“Where this goes now, I don’t know,” said Nelms. “It doesn’t mean it’s dead in the water. It’s a bump.”


Jackson Park was announced in 2016 as the chosen site for the Obama Presidential Library (later renamed the Obama Presidential Center, as more of museum-type institution). City Council gave the project the green light in May 2018.

Click to enlarge: Overview of Jackson Park, Midway Plaisance and Washington Park. (Google Satellite)Click to enlarge: Overview of Jackson Park, Midway Plaisance and Washington Park. (Google Satellite)

Because Jackson Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and federal dollars are being allocated toward the Obama Center, the project triggered a Section 106 review, which is a provision of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act.

Section 106 “requires federal agencies to consider the effects on historic properties of projects they carry out, assist, fund, permit, license, or approve throughout the country.” The review process was created as a tool for citizens to have a say in protecting and maintaining historic properties in their communities.

The steps in a Section 106 review are clearly outlined by the nation’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

— Step One. Identifying the historic properties involved.

— Step Two. Determining whether these historic properties would be adversely affected by the project. “Adverse effects” are those that diminish characteristics qualifying a property for inclusion in the National Register.

— Step Three. Achieving a resolution of adverse effects, which involves avoiding, minimizing or mitigating their impact. The Memorandum of Agreement records the measures agreed to in this step. This is where the Obama Center review is stalled.

In addition to the Section 106 review, other federal reviews of the Obama Presidential Center are in progress. 

NEPA review is required under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 to assess the environmental impacts of proposed projects that entail the expenditure of federal funds or impact designated types of properties including historic parks.

UPARR review is required under the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery Act of 1978 to determine whether and how much Jackson Park land can be converted from recreational to non-recreational uses for the OPC. Replacement parkland must also be identified before conversion is allowed.

Along with the various reviews, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit is currently weighing Protect Our Parks’ case against the Chicago Park District. Protect Our Parks is arguing that the Park District abdicated its fiduciary responsibility when it handed over 20 acres of public trust land in Jackson Park to the Obama Center, for $10 over the course of a 99-year lease.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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