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The Obama Foundation unveiled plans last week for the presidential center it plans to construct in Chicago’s Jackson Park, but there is an underlying battle to prohibit construction of the center on its proposed site.

The Obama presidential center was initially planned as a library, but the project has now burgeoned into a 20-acre private “center” built on public parkland that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, leaving some environmentalists and historians disenchanted with the project.

Charles Birnbaum, president and founder of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, the Cultural Landscape Foundation, said Saturday in a written statement to the Washington Examiner, “Here’s our bottom line. If the Obama Foundation wishes to construct this center on Chicago’s South Side, that’s fine, but not on parkland held in public trust. The University of Chicago, which orchestrated the winning bid for the project, has plenty of land on the South Side that they could and should use. Instead, they’ve been adamant since day one that they must have historic public parkland for the purpose.”

The Cultural Landscape Foundation has been joined by other groups who have raised concern about the project, including Friends of the Parks, Jackson Park Watch, Openlands, National Association for Olmsted Parks, Save the Midway, Landmarks Illinois, and Preservation Chicago.

More than 200 faculty members from the University of Chicago issued a formal letter last Monday stating their opposition to the presidential center being built on 21 acres of Jackson Park, among other issues.

Considering that Rham Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, is the mayor of Chicago, the project is expected to be green-lighted by Chicago’s planning department and city council.

“If past is prologue, municipal officials will rubber-stamp their approvals,” Birnbaum said.

The federal process is expected to be more complicated, with the Obama Foundation being required to obtain approval from the Environmental Protection Agency under the National Environmental Policy Act and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

According to the Washington Examiner, “The first verification process will determine if the Obama Presidential Center would have ‘adverse effects’ on Jackson Park. The State Historic Preservation Office will ask ‘official consulting parties’ to provide opinions.”

Birnbaum wrote, “This will play out over 2018 and involve several meetings of the ‘official consulting parties’ along with extensive written input from those parties. A determination could be made that there are no adverse effects and the OPC would proceed (highly unlikely); a determination could be made that there are adverse effects and a process of mitigation could be developed and approved by all of the consulting parties in a formal Memorandum of Agreement; a determination could be made that there are adverse effects, but the consulting parties don’t agree on mitigation, then this would likely end in litigation.”

The Chicago City Council will take up the issue this week, and the Obama Foundation is expected to spend much of 2018 pursuing federal approval for the project.

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