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Obama Library parking plan draws criticism after design changes

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Some questioned whether a parking garage would even be relevant in the near future

Site map for the Obama Presidential Center.
Obama Foundation

The Obama Presidential Center architecture team has revisited the design of the proposed parking plan, focusing on the controversial garage located on the historic Midway Plaisance.

Last week, a closed meeting was called to discuss changes and new ideas for the complex, according to the news first reported by the Chicago Sun-Times. The Obama Foundation invited 50 interested parties to the gathering led by architects Tod Williams, Billie Tsien, Dina Griffin plus the landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh.

A two-story garage covered with landscaping at the east end of the Midway Plaisance was presented to meeting attendees, the Sun-Times reported. The structure would have landscaped slopes on all sides and stretch six feet higher than the nearby CTA train tracks. Evergreen trees and shrubbery would be planted on the slopes with openings allowing natural light and air into the garage.

The new plan does not address the concerns from community leaders and watchdog groups, said Brenda Nelmes, co-founder of Jackson Park Watch. The above-ground parking structure remains on the Midway Plaisance, a valued strip of Jackson Park designed in 1871 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. An underground structure was discussed, but that idea was cut from presentation at the meeting.

Bobolink Meadow in Jackson Park
Urbsinhorto1837 / Flickr

The bus staging site was eliminated from this iteration of the plan along with a children’s play area, a basketball court, grilling stations, and picnic tables, Nelmes said. The meeting’s main focus was the parking garage and the architects did not say where the bus site would be relocated.

Proponents of this particular design and location is that it might encourage visitors to stop in at new businesses, shops and restaurants on their way to the center.

However, others say there isn’t space in the largely residential and institutional area for restaurants or shops within walking distance from the proposed location of the center.

Those at the meeting questioned whether “the architects were really planning for the future,” with the inclusion of a parking structure, Nelmes said. It seemed to be “backwards thinking,” especially with other transportation options such as ridesharing and biking available, she added. Improving public transportation could be an alternative area of focus.

The federal review that was triggered in November will not be completed until the summer or fall in 2018. The decision here will be important in determining the parking structure’s viability and whether a 2021 ground breaking will be possible.

The city and federal agencies are currently in the process of assessing the historic resources and environment that would be impacted by the proposed plan. The next public meeting isn’t scheduled yet, but the city will list meeting dates and progress on its website.