Obama Center Use Agreement sent to full Council

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) speaks with Ald. David Moore (17th) after he voted to support the use agreement authorizing the Obama Presidential Center to be built in Jackson Park. Moore previously was the only alderman who opposed the initial ordinance. – Marc Monaghan

Staff Writer

The Committee on Housing and Real Estate today unanimously approved the intergovernmental use agreement between the Chicago Park District and the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park and sent it the full City Council. The Council will consider the ordinance at its next meeting on Oct. 31.

Department of Planning and Development (DPD) Commissioner David Riefman explained that the ordinance passed today amends the original intergovernmental agreement, entered into in 2015, and also includes master, use and environmental agreements. The agreement modifies the OPC campus boundaries to include Cornell Drive and the eastbound lanes of the Midway Plaisance to improve connectivity and transportation within Jackson Park. The city will acquire the title to 19.3 acres of Park District property, less than the 20 acres approved in 2015.

The master agreement establishes conditions that must be met for the Obama Foundation to take custodianship of the OPC campus, which will remain owned by the city throughout its 99-year term of use. The city still must obtain federal approval before the OPC is built, and the Obama Foundation must establish an endowment demonstrating to the city that it has funding or funding commitments at or exceeding expected construction costs.

The use agreement gives the Obama Foundation the right to operate the OPC free of charge because of the Center’s public utility, subject to City Council approval of the 99-year agreement. The Obama Foundation plans to begin construction of the OPC within a year and complete it within four years after the use agreement is signed, with a window for a two-year delay for “unexpected reasons.” The use agreement can be signed only after the terms of the master agreement are met.

Riefman noted the Obama Foundation’s Community Commitments intention to give half of the OPC subcontracts to diverse firms when discussing city residency and minimum wage requirements. He also said that the OPC campus will remain parkland “whether it’s owned by the Park District or the city,” free and open to the public.

The environmental agreement requires the Foundation to perform an investigation of the construction site and remediate any contamination exceeding residential standards; the city is also required to reimburse the Foundation up to $75,000 in investigative costs plus incremental remediation costs.

Riefman noted that “the ordinance acknowledges concerns about housing and displacement, and the city recognizes potential for demographic change that can occur over large scale public and private investments, like the Obama Presidential Center.” He said the DPD will monitor property values and “other indicators of neighborhood change” and work with aldermanic offices and the community “in implementing appropriate measures to preserve economic diversity, home ownership and affordability for long-term residents.”

“What we have included in the ordinance ensures that people have a place in the future,” said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), in whose ward the OPC will be located. She said the OPC would be an exception to patterns of displacement after neighborhood redevelopment because “this place is for us.”

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), whose Southwest Side ward includes parts of Brighton Park, Back-of-the-Yards and West Englewood, questioned Riefman and Obama Foundation officials about concerns over gentrification.

Riefman said the issue was of great importance to Hairston, the DPD and the Foundation; he noted the substantial investments the OPC would bring to Woodlawn, South Shore and Washington Park. He pledged that the DPD would be involved with local community groups, saying it would be an “ongoing process” including “various different perspectives.”

Obama Foundation Chief Engagement Officer Michael Strautmanis said the former President and First Lady chose to put the OPC on the South Side “to invest in and benefit … the residents who live in this community.”

“Our goal is to make sure that people who are the longtime residents of the neighborhood, those who have stayed in times both challenging and great, have an opportunity to realize the opportunity and experience that’s going to come from the Barack Obama Presidential Center there,” Strautmanis said.

Lopez pushed back after representatives reiterated the Foundation’s commitments to hiring a diverse workforce to build the OPC, expressing concerns that not enough was being done “on the front end to keep people in their homes.”

Hairston responded that she has worked with local organizations and residents on neighborhood stabilization plans and homeownership repair in conjunction with other projects such as the construction of the 606 bicycle and pedestrian trail through the Humboldt and Wicker Park neighborhoods.

She described such efforts around the OPC as works in process and said that her office is exploring options with Fritz Kaegi, who is running to become the next Cook County assessor. Hairston also said that the federally subsidized housing located opposite the OPC site will continue to be operated as such.

As Hyde Park’s issues with affordable housing are different from issues elsewhere in the Fifth Ward, Hairston said a “one-size-fits-all” approach will not work. She said she will update the committee about progress made in this area, in “trying to build a format that we can not just use for this, but that we can use in other parts of the neighborhood.”

North Side Ald. Deb Mell (33rd), whose ward includes parts of Albany and Irving parks and Avondale, questioned why the archived presidential records will not be housed on-site at the OPC. Strautmanis said it was a space concern, as the archives are of more interest to academic researchers than tourists.

In conversation with the National Archives, Strautmanis said the Obama Foundation is digitizing presidential records — a move he said the National Archives was eager to try. Strautmanis said space that would have been used for the physical archives is now the designated site of the OPC’s planned Chicago Public Library branch.

The physical archives will be housed in Kansas City, and Strautmanis explained this was the prerogative of the National Archives, which maintains custody of all presidential records. The circumstance is similar to Gerald Ford’s presidential archives housed at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and not his presidential museum in Grand Rapids.

Strautmanis said that the museum would contain a number of primary sources, that accessibility was the Foundation’s primary goal and that the OPC’s “new model … moves the entire presidential center model into the 21st century.” He suggested Mell ask the National Archives whether the Obama archives could be stored anywhere in Chicagoland.

Obama’s presidential records are currently at a facility in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates; Obama Foundation executive director Robbin Cohen said she hopes they will ultimately be housed “somewhere in the Midwest.”

Englewood Ald. David Moore (17th) provided the meeting’s most dramatic moment, as he was the sole representative to vote no when the City Council and Zoning Committee authorized the OPC over the summer, citing the sorry condition of public infrastructure in his ward.

“Many people say President Obama did not do anything for the City of Chicago when he was president,” said Moore. “President Obama gave us hope, and this Center is a step forward to turn that hope into a promise.”

He asked two black men, one formerly incarcerated and the other formerly homeless, to stand in the City Council chamber and be recognized by the committee for the promise of their future professional and political lives. He called them tradesmen without union cards and said that, if given the chance to build the OPC, they could turn “that promise that Barack gave us, that hope,” into a promise for them.

“Sometimes you’ll be so down that a job won’t help you, that a million dollars won’t help you — I know from experience,” said Moore. “But hope goes a long way.”