Obama Foundation Releases New Details About Presidential Center, Responds to Critics

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

The Obama Foundation is sharing new details related to its landscape plan for the proposed Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, including a just announced partnership with the Chicago Botanic Garden.

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The goal, the foundation said in a statement, is to “create a model of sustainability and strengthen the overall ecological health of the site.”

The Botanic Garden will be particularly involved with the design of an anticipated fruit and vegetable garden, bringing its expertise in operating urban farms to the table, according to the foundation.

A new Chicago Public Library branch located at the center will have a garden on its roof, similar to the one Michelle Obama planted at the White House during her time as first lady. Community members will be given opportunities for hands-on gardening experiences.

The overall design for the grounds of the Obama Presidential Center was created by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, whose firm, MVVA, worked on Chicago’s 606 Bloomingdale Trail and Maggie Daley Park. 

Paul Seck, partner at MVVA, described the environmental impacts of the OPC as transformative: “The project offers exciting opportunities to revive site ecologies and urban biodiversity while also improving access, connectivity, and landscape experience for visitors and the people of Chicago within this area of Jackson Park.”

Sustainability features of the site will include the incorporation of pollinator-friendly plants and stronger stormwater retention strategies, the foundation said.

Opponents of the foundation’s choice of historic Jackson Park as the location for the OPC have complained that the center’s 235-foot tower and associated 20-acre campus is anything but environmentally friendly, citing the removal of several hundred trees to accommodate construction, as well as the collision threat posed by the tower’s height in the heart of a migratory bird flyway. 

Responding to such criticism, an Obama Foundation spokesperson told WTTW News, via email: “The foundation is taking multiple steps to ensure the Obama Presidential Center has a positive impact for the migratory pattern on the site.”

Plants, lighting and the tower’s architecture have been thought through with birds in mind, the spokesperson said.

Lighting, for example, will follow the Audubon Society’s “lights out“ goals. And the center’s tower, according to the spokesperson, has been designed to mitigate glass and reduce the potential for reflective surfaces.

The plan also calls for the repurposing of trees into park benches, picnic tables, art and other uses, according to the spokesperson.

Groundbreaking on the OPC has been delayed during a federal review process of the center’s impact on Jackson Park. With that review now concluded, city officials recently announced preliminary work on roads and utilities in anticipation of a formal groundbreaking in the fall.

The nonprofit organization Protect Our Parks, meanwhile, continues to fight the OPC’s location in Jackson Park, filing a new lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the center in mid-April.

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

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