By AARON GETTINGER
Meeting today in City Hall, the Chicago City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmark and Building Standards approved the Obama Foundation’s application to rezone an area of Jackson Park to allow the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. The vote authorized the transfer of 19.3 acres of Jackson Park from the city to the Park District, which will lease it to the Foundation for a peppercorn fee.
In addition to the Center’s “forum” community center, athletic center, museum and Chicago Public Library branch, the rezoning allows for research, office and administration space; retail, food and beverage retail sales including liquor, parking, park and open space development and special events and entertainment. The city is now committed to $175 million in infrastructural spending, including the controversial closing of a section of Cornell Drive.
“What we intend to do is create a model of urban development,” said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), whose constituency includes the OPC site. She described a “cross-section neighborhood stabilization plan” through in business investment, debt equity, housing stabilization, housing support and construction development.
“Stable communities make healthy communities,” said Hairston.
Local activists, who had earlier protested the Committee’s hearing of matters related to the planned $95 million police academy, protested for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) ordinance in and outside of the City Council chamber.
Alex Goldenberg, executive director of Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), said his group supported the OPC but expressed apprehension about displacement of low-income households around Jackson Park, saying that there had been a 23 percent increase in local rents since the project’s announcement.
After calling upon Hairston and Ald. Willie Cochrane (20th), who represents Woodlawn, to back a Community Benefits Agreement ordinance, Hairston aggressively questioned Goldenberg about whether STOP believed the proposed CBA ordinance’s tenets, including strict percentage quotas for local hiring and low-income housing, should apply citywide. After much back-and-forth, Goldenberg said his group did not support this.
Addressing the committee, Michael Strautmanis, the Foundation’s Chief Engagement Officer, reiterated his promise that the OPC would attract hundreds of thousands of visitors and lead to thousands of jobs on the South and West Sides. “We also hear from residents who worry that there won’t be a place for them,” he conceded, noting that the Foundation would “advocate” for the community and pointing to its Community Commitments pledge issued earlier this month.
Strautmanis also relayed the Foundation’s implementation of community input to the plan, such as the relocation of the parking structure off the Midway Plaisance and the planned preservation of the Jackson Park Women’s Garden and dispersal of playgrounds around the OPC campus. Roark Frankel, the Foundation’s Director of Planning and Construction, said that the OPC’s museum tower was not a monument to President Obama but rather “a purposefully designed experience to instill pride.” Its observation room, he said, would be free to the public.
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, rejected this argument, noting that the tower would be around 20-stories tall. “Make no bones about it: The proposed plans will backhoe and destroy almost 20 acres of this legacy parkland,” he said. “This green leafy site will be compromised by three very large buildings on a concrete plaza.” Miller said that no other presidential libraries are at this scale and called OPC an “extension” of the University of Chicago into Jackson Park.
In the end, the Committee voted nine-to-one in favor of the rezoning ordinance, with only Ald. David Moore (17th), who represents parts of Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Marquette Park, voting against it. [In comments to the Sun-Times, Moore said he could not allow infrastructural spending elsewhere when conditions were so poor in his ward.] As of The Herald has contacted Moore’s office for comment.
In a statement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the OPC “will be a powerful economic, educational and cultural engine for Chicago. It will be a living testament to the historic life and legacy of Barack and Michelle Obama, and a beacon of hope to inspire young people from all walks of life who will follow in their formidable footsteps.”
Speaking in support of the rezoning, Ald. James Cappleman, whose 46th Ward contains most of Uptown and northern Lakeview, said that the OPC was inspiring discussion just as former President Barack and Michelle Obama’s careers have always spurred discussion. “I think it’s a very controversial design, and I think it needs to be,” he said.