City Council approves OPC plans

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) speaks on behalf of Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), as she was absent due to family matters, in favor of the Obama Foundation’s request for zoning changes allowing the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park during Wednesday’s City Council meeting in City Hall, 121 N. La Salle Dr. – Marc Monaghan

Staff Writer

The Chicago City Council voted today 47 to one in support of the rezoning motion passed yesterday by the body’s Zoning Affairs Committee that allows the construction of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who has served as an active cheerleader for the project throughout its planning, was unable to attend the session because of a family affair. Ald. Roderick T. Sawyer (6th), who represents parts of Englewood and Chatham, read her statement ahead of the vote:

“The Obama Presidential Center represents the kind of investment in our community that can change the lives of families for generations. People in the community will be able to drive by this international tourist attraction in their community and be able to say that they helped build that,” the alderman said before stressing the OPC’s financial windfall both for small business owners and for job development. Hairston called the day’s vote “the end of the beginning”.

Hairston’s fellow aldermen then praised her and Mayor Rahm Emanuel and began to speak in turn in nearly unanimous support of the OPC.

The only vote against the proposal came from Ald. David Moore (17th), from Englewood. “When we’re talking about $175 million dollars, that’s what disturbs me, not the Presidential Library,” he said. “If the Center was paying for those streets themselves, then no problem. But when we talk about asking, whether its coming from federal, state or this government, for streets that are not in as rough shape as the streets in our communities, I have an issue with that.”

Alex Goldenberg, executive director of Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), and other members of the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition (CBA Coalition) are removed from the gallery of City Council Chambers by Chicago Police Officers as the CBA Coalition protests the City Council’s vote to approve the Obama Foundation’s request for zoning changes allowing the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park during Wednesday’s City Council meeting. – Marc Monaghan

In the viewing gallery above the Council chamber, protesters from the Community Benefits Agreement Coalition then began chanting “No CBA, no vote” and pounding on the glass before being silenced and removed by sergeants-at-arms. None of the protesters in the gallery were from Hyde Park–Kenwood, but Cosette Hampton, a Woodlawn resident representing the Black Youth Project 100, expressed her concerns to the Herald.

“President Obama is bringing in a lot of these resources and a lot of jobs. However, it is going to be at the expense of black and brown folks, at the expense of low-income people and at the expense of youth who live in the communities and are being reached out already,” said Hampton.

She said that local residents have already seen their rents rise and that, ahead of her anticipated increase in the area’s security presence, there are “no protections to keep young black people and brown people safe from the police.”

Hampton further said that contracts issued for the OPC construction are being issued to organizations that “don’t want to see restorative and transformative change in the communities; [they’re] people who just want to suck out capital from the Woodlawn and Hyde Park areas.” She also said she opposes the proposed closure of Cornell Drive in Jackson Park and that there were other “unused” spaces that could house the OPC instead of the park “that’s already [one of] very few that we have in low-income black and brown communities.”

City Council members and others applaud after the City Council voted 47 to 1 to approve the Obama Foundation’s request for zoning changes allowing the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park during Wednesday’s City Council meeting. – Marc Monaghan

Hampton said that youth at local high schools have not been engaged with the process and that the Obama Foundation has not attempted to build relations with the local schools. When reminded of the Obamas’ presence in Hyde Park Academy High School, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave., with which the Foundation has said it has a “special relationship,” Hampton countered, “Just because he’s been there doesn’t mean he’s made an agreement, a written agreement, that makes sure they receive benefits from the developments that are going to come with the Obama Presidential Center.”

In the Community Commitments pledge issued earlier this month, the Foundation said its involvement with Hyde Park Academy High School will include “comprehensive engagement with faculty and students, jobs opportunities and unique in-school and after-school programming.”

“People want the Obama Presidential Center, but people want the Obama Presidential Center and those administrators of it to commit to a community benefits agreement that will make sure that long-term benefits actually benefit and provide resources to people that live in the community now,” Hampton said, adding that she does believe a CBA is possible to achieve. She and other protesters then silently gave the City Council the finger from the gallery.

Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, which opposes the placement of the OPC in Jackson Park, issued a statement after what he called the “expected” vote. “For all the talk of transparency, the Obama Foundation has never answered one essential question: Why must National Register-designated public parkland be taken for the OPC when other options exist?”

In comments before the Council vote, Hyde Parker Mary Anton, who grew up in Pullman and Roseland, relayed the decades of difficulties the South Side has endured and suggested that it needs “a Marshall Plan, a force from outside that can be fair-handed, transparent and collaborative.” She said the OPC could be this “economic engine,” saying it is best positioned in Jackson Park, not in a neighborhood itself, as the Center would provide “an economic ripple effect to the communities surrounding it, fostering but not interfering with their development.”

“I look forward to witnessing the reawakening of the South Side,” Anton said.

“There are times that it’s not about a particular ward, but about the future of the City. And we are all stewards of this city’s future,” said Emanuel after the vote. “Today we took a vote, with courage and confidence, about that future. And that future’s here in the City of Chicago.”

“It could have been in Hawaii, it could have been on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but it’s going to be right here on the South Side of the City of Chicago,” said Emanuel. “In my view, people from all over the City, all over the country and all over the world come to our city, a place we call home, and see where the United States embraced its future in an affirmative way.”

In a statement following the vote, David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation, thanked Emanuel and the City Council for their support, saying they were “committed to continuing the conversation with our neighbors and community across chicago on how we can build an OPC that fulfills President and Mrs. Obama’s vision.”