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Obama Center design revised to answer critics and better fit with park in Chicago

Obama Center design revised to answer critics and better fit with park in Chicago
A view of the proposed Obama Presidential Center campus shows in Chicago's Jackson Park. (Obama Foundation)

Addressing criticism that their plans would undermine the serene landscape of Chicago's historic Jackson Park, backers of the Obama Presidential Center have revealed major revisions that include a sleeker version of the center's controversial museum tower.

The new tower design calls for a high-rise that would be taller, thinner and more transparent than a version unveiled last May, which was widely panned as monolithic and pyramidlike. Portions of the revamped tower's outside walls would consist of screens made of stone letters, making the tower airier while suggesting the importance of words in Barack Obama's presidency.

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In a video distributed Tuesday night by the Obama Foundation, the nonprofit tasked with building the center, Obama said the museum tower represents "ascension, hope and what ordinary people have the power to do together."

Earlier in the day, the center's architects maintained that their plan strikes the right balance between fitting into Jackson Park and making an iconic statement that befits the nation's first African American president.

"I don't feel embarrassed about it being tall," said New York City architect Billie Tsien, who co-designed the center with her partner and husband, Tod Williams. "This isn't a private homage. It's a public recognition of many people's stories."

The foundation on Wednesday will formally submit its plans to the Chicago Plan Commission in an effort to win approval this spring so it can break ground by year end and open the center in 2021.

Foundation leaders said they were not fazed by the need to overcome other regulatory hurdles, including a federal review of the center's impact on Jackson Park that is not expected to be complete until next fall. "We have a sense of urgency about this project. People are anxious to have this come to life," said Michael Strautmanis, the foundation's vice president of civic engagement.

The carefully orchestrated pitches came a day after the Obama Foundation and the former president bowed to community pressure and scrapped plans for an above-ground parking garage across Stony Island Avenue from the center. Critics said the garage would have intruded on openness of the mile-long Midway Plaisance that connects Jackson and Washington parks.

The model showed the first glimpse of the new garage — an underground facility, covered by parkland, that would be built south of the library building. The model also revealed a conceptual design for the center's proposed athletic building — a low-slung rectangular structure topped by a curving, free-form roof. The design, Williams said, would "activate" Jackson Park, not desecrate it.

Initially hailed as a economic boon for economically struggling areas on the city's South Side, the center has provoked controversy on many fronts since Obama and the architects first released plans.

Local and national open-space advocates have argued that the center will compromise the quiet, contemplative character of Jackson Park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designed by the 19th century landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Others have criticized the foundation's plan to close Cornell Drive, a heavily used traffic artery that slices through Jackson Park, to make room for the center and new parkland that would link it to the nearby Museum of Science and Industry.

Artist's rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.
Artist's rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. (Obama Foundation)

Funds for the center, which is expected to cost $500 million, are to be raised privately, but it is anticipated that millions of dollars in public money will have to be spent on road improvements to handle traffic shifts caused by the proposed closure of Cornell Drive.

Here are highlights of the architects' latest plans:

The museum tower: To address criticism that their initial design was massive and opaque, the architects shrank the tower's footprint and increased its height to about 225 feet from a planned 160 to 180 feet. They also enlarged existing windows and added new ones, notably a 100-foot-tall expanse of glass on the tower's north side that would reveal escalators bringing visitors to the building's museum floors.

The proposed screens of stone letters, which would appear on the tower's south- and west-facing walls, would be made of the same light-colored stone (white or gray) that covers the rest of the building. The screens also seek to make the building appear less monolithic. They will serve as sun shades and create outdoor terraces framed by the screens on one side and an inner facade of windows on the other.

"We want to make sure this is a lively, engaging, sun-sensitive building," Williams said.

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The athletic center: This two-level building, which would have one level at ground level and another below, would contain a flexible space that could be used for basketball, dance and other sports. It would include community meeting and workout rooms.

Open space: While the center's buildings would occupy 3.6 acres, there would be a net gain in open space because closing Cornell Drive would create 5.16 acres of parkland, said Martin Nesbitt, the foundation's chairman. Planted roofs atop the buildings, which would be open to the public, would add more green space. The grounds also would include a sledding hill and gardens where vegetables can be grown, plus winding paths that recall Olmsted's initial design for the park.

Kamin writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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