By AARON GETTINGER
Last Thursday after a seven-hour marathon meeting defined by passionate statements on either side of the debate, the Chicago Plan Commission approved the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park with no dissent, only a handful of abstentions.
Groups had protested outside of City Hall before the event, and representatives of the Community Benefits Agreement Coalition disrupted the proceedings early in the day before sergeants-at-arms removed them.
Fifth Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston called them “professional protesters” in her remarks before putting the Obama Foundation’s Community Commitments into the meeting record. “Some people just don’t know when they’ve got a win,” she said to applause.
Foundation Chief Engagement Officer Michael Strautmanis struck a friendly tone in his comments throughout the meeting. “The hundreds of people who are with us today inspire us,” he said. “These people took time out of their busy lives to be here today not for us, but because they want to do something to make their neighborhoods stronger for their families and future generations.” He said the OPC plan had been “strengthened and refined” through the community engagement process.
“I saw the President last night,” said Marty Nesbitt, the Foundation’s chairman. “He is heartened by the dynamic engagement between the Foundation and the rest of the community. The enthusiasm, the energy, the passion is really the kind of engagement he built his entire career on.”
Locals’ comments at the meeting concerned mainly the use of Jackson Park and neighborhood affordability after the OPC is built. “Currently the park is very difficult to even use, as you have to navigate across six lanes of highway with only periodic breaks with a stoplight,” said Hyde Parker Brian Starr, speaking in support of the OPC plans to close Cornell Drive.
Brenda Nelms of Jackson Park Watch, however, said she wished alternatives to the Department of Transportation plan to close a section of Cornell had been explored and that the proposed closure was “unnecessary,” saying the Foundation had said the OPC would be built on the site either way.
Margaret Schmid, also of Jackson Park Watch, reiterated her group’s talking points about the OPC’s footprint and replacement parkland, questioning the Foundation’s math, before her time expired and she was drummed out by hostile applause.
Hyde Parker Alice Mulberry said she was “delighted” that President Obama wanted to build his Center on the South Side an “a stimulus for economic development for areas that need it.” She did advise that the OPC be located in Woodlawn or the Washington Park neighborhood, both for economic development and for the preservation of parkland.
“My concern is who will it be accessible to and who will benefit,” said Kenwood resident Timuel Black, a 99-year South Sider, calling back to 20th century urban renewal efforts that displaced a number of blacks.
Antonio Ross, principal of Hyde Park Academy High School, 6220 S. Stony Island Ave., said that conversations with Foundation officials had been productive. “They have delivered above and beyond,” he said. “I look forward to that partnership continuing throughout the years and continue to provide opportunities for young people and expose them to things that they may not have been exposed to.”
Representatives from the Museum of Science and Industry, 5700 S. Lake Shore Dr., and the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl., also spoke in support of the OPC.
Just before the vote, Strautmanis reiterated the Foundation’s promises for the community around the OPC campus. “We want to make sure that neighborhoods stabilize,” he said. “We want to make sure that low income people who are there have the opportunity to stay there. We’re encouraged by what we’ve heard from aldermen who want to convene on this issue. We want to convene on this issue.”
“We’re going to live up to our commitment. We want the neighborhood to keep stabilizing. We want the people who are there to live there and to stay there,” said Strautmanis. He thanked the CBA Coalition, promising partnership and work with them and with other groups in the community.