By JOSEPH PHILLIPS
Former President Barack Obama surprised attendees during his visit to the most recent community discussion about the design and
development of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC), Tuesday, Feb 27, at McCormick Place, 2301 S. King Dr.
During his speech at the public meeting, which was hosted by the Obama Foundation as part of its ongoing community discussion initiative, Obama addressed community concerns about why he and former First Lady Michelle Obama chose Jackson Park for the Center, why the Foundation will not sign a community benefits agreement and the affect the Center may have on gentrification in nearby neighborhoods.
Obama said he wants the South side to have a vibrant park like Central Park in New York and Lincoln Park and Millennium Park on the North side.
“When you look at vibrant parks they have activity, life, movement, stuff going on,” Obama said. “There’s nothing wrong with quiet contemplative spaces but we want a lived-in park.”
Obama said the OPC is a result of his desire to leave a lasting legacy to the city and neighborhood that helped make him president.
“I asked myself, what could I do that would have the most impact on people,” Obama said. “[I’ll] try and create opportunities, jobs, justice, and a vision that lifts people up.”
Obama said the Center, which includes a library, museum and public meeting space, would also include a recording studio, an athletic center and an innovation incubator space.
He projected that the museum alone would have about 700 thousand visitors a year.
Once the project is complete, the Obama Foundation believes that the Center will be an economic engine to the community and a reinvestment in Jackson Park.
“This is our gift,” said Obama about him and Michelle Obama the OPC in the Jackson Park community. “This is us wanting to give back.”
Obama, through the Obama Foundation, is raising funds for the OPC. Which is one of the reasons he said the Foundation will not sign a Community Benefits Agreement.
“I actually think it’s admirable and important that communities, when they’ve got big projects coming in, are paying attention to who’s building, who’s benefiting and who’s getting the jobs,” Obama said. “But what I said before in previous community meetings and I just want to repeat, we are not coming in here as a for-profit organization. I’m out there raising a bunch of money to get this thing built, to get the programming up and running. I’m not getting a salary out of the Foundation.”
Obama said despite not signing a CBA, the Foundation wants current South side residents to benefit from having the OPC nearby.
“We will not displace residents,” Obama said. “A lot of people get nervous about gentrification and understandably so. When I first came to Chicago in 1985 on the south side … it was not my experience during that time that the biggest problem on the South side was too much development or too much economic activity or too many people being displaced because of all of these folks from Lincoln Park pouring into the south side. That’s not what’s happening… Think about all the abandoned buildings and vacant lots around here.
Obama said, “We can’t say we want more opportunities but we want everything to stay the same.”
He said affordable housing for seniors and the assurance that current residents are benefitting is important but so is having safe neighborhoods.
Obama said once the OPC is part of the neighborhood, “if rents go up, [residents] can afford to pay it because they will have jobs.”
He said over the next four years the OPC project would create $3 billion in economic activity and 5,000 permanent jobs.
Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, said in a written statement to the Herald that while Friends of the Parks is excited to have the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s south side, the group does not agree with Obama’s theory that that the only way to fix a park is to build a building in it:
“Friends of the Parks is excited about the Obama Presidential Center coming to Chicago’s south side. And we’re glad that our hometown, former president considers equitable investment in Chicago’s parks to be important. We agree with him on that. What we don’t agree on is the appropriateness of long-term disinvestment in parks that culminates in the all-too-common argument that the only way to fix a park is to build a building in it.
And we are saddened by Obama’s dismissiveness toward the many Chicagoans who dare to express opposing views or the need for appropriate vetting and review, not the least of which is the federally-required Section 106/NEPA review. I guess he’s been away long enough that he has forgotten how the “City that Works” works. On a daily basis, we Chicagoans suffer the consequences of poor public policy decisions that stem from inadequate long-term planning, transparency, and oversight.
But since we’re clearly not going to get the fully comprehensive planning process that is merited and we have called for, we are thankful that at least we got a public announcement yesterday of the Obama Foundation’s intent to pay for a turf field to make up for the one that will be displaced by the OPC. And we appreciate that the Obama Foundation had given Friends of the Parks a heads up on that in follow up to our conversations with them about the issue. But since it is an element of the CBA Coalition “Sustainability and Transportation” platform, we wish the foundation would also sit down and talk with our allies who are leading the charge for a community benefits agreement.
In the end, while we have absolutely no argument with the idea that our first black president merits a prominent site, we believe that refraining from building on parkland would more fully honor the legacy of a former community organizer who sought Friends of the Parks’ advice years ago on expanding the amount green space on Chicago’s south side and later made it a point of his presidency to protect public lands.”
Brenda Nelms and Margaret Schmid, co-presidents of Jackson Park Watch said they hope Former President Barack Obama’s vision for the OPC as the incubator for the next generation of community leaders comes to fruition.
“This is a vision that has broad and enthusiastic support,” said Nelms and Schmid in a written statement to the Herald.
“We have recently called for the Obama Foundation, Mayor, CDOT, and Park District to explore alternatives to closing Cornell Drive,” said Nelms and Schmid. “We were pleased to see at Tuesday night’s meeting in the breakout session on the proposed traffic reconfigurations for Jackson Park that there were many questions and considerable pushback about the specific plans. Jackson Park Watch has elsewhere expressed concern about the high cost of the road proposals as an unnecessary burden on taxpayers, about potential congestion and safety concerns for vehicles and pedestrians alike, and about the unnecessary destruction of key portions of the historic Olmsted design for the Park. Overall and unfortunately, the CDOT plans reflect decisions made without community input. We will continue to push for exploration of alternatives.”
The meeting concluded with two rounds of breakout sessions on topics including the design of the OPC’s building and landscape, the Chicago Department of Transportation’s plans for road adjustments, economic development and the Chicago Park District’s plans for a new track and turf field.