City Council passes Obama Center use agreement, Jackson Park transportation restructuring

As Obama Foundation Chief Engagement Officer Michael Strautmanis looks on, Obama Foundation board chair Martin Nesbitt and Mayor Rahm Emanuel hug after the City Council approved the ordinance opening the way for the Obama Presidential Center to be developed in Jackson Park. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff Writer

CITY HALL — The Chicago City Council today voted unanimously to pass the intergovernmental use agreement governing the establishment and operation of the Obama Presidential Center and the accompanying ordinance authorizing a reworking of roadways and trails in Jackson Park.

The Center still must pass federal reviews of the project, and it must receive a favorable verdict the lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks before it can be built.

Because of the limited time for public comment and other issues before the City Council, the meeting was largely devoid of the acrimony, emotion and drama that has characterized other votes regarding the OPC. There was scant debate before the roll call and voice votes.

“I do want to say how important this is as a landmark to the City of Chicago,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, saying that the OPC brings “full circle” the work former President Obama’s did as a community organizer on the South Side, sparking a sustained, standing ovation among the aldermen.

Emanuel read a letter written by Obama: “I am so excited and grateful that today the Obama Foundation received approval from the City of Chicago’s City Council on the agreement that will help bring the Obama Presidential Center to life as a resource and amenity to the people of Chicago.” The former president thanked Emanuel, his one-time chief of staff, the Council and OPC supporters and said he was looking forward to next steps.

“Michelle and I couldn’t be prouder and more excited to bring the Center to the South Side, a community that has given us both so much,” Obama wrote.

The organization Friends of the Parks released a statement after the ordinance’s passage, saying in part: “Friends of the Parks maintains our firm belief that the Obama Presidential Center should not be built in a park. While we welcome it to Chicago and particularly the South Side with which the Obamas have such deep connections, we have consistently called for it to be located on the 11 acres of vacant land across the street from Washington Park.”

After the votes, Foundation Chief Engagement Officer Michael Strautmanis and Martin Nesbitt, the chair of its board of directors, addressed reporters. Nesbitt called the day a “big step in a process that’s been long” and hailed the mayor as “a soldier in helping us push this thing forward.”

When asked about the local opposition to the establishment of the OPC in Jackson Park, Nesbitt said he “hasn’t seen very many of them.”

“We’ve all been working together,” he continued. “People have a lot of perspectives. Thousands of people have collaborated with us on this project, and the enthusiasm for this project is overwhelming. We continue to see that every day in our work.” He said the Foundation feels optimistic “about getting this to the finish line.”

Nesbitt said groups would work towards managing the issue of displacement in neighborhoods adjacent to the OPC. “We’re going to do everything we can to allow our neighbors to be able to stay in the community,” he said.

Asked about gentrification, Nesbitt said he, the Obamas and others made the decision to live on the South Side “as it was and as it is, and we hope to have that continuity in place.”

Devondrick Jeffers of STOP (Southside Together Organizing for Power) asks for a delay of the vote on the OPC community service agreement. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

“We want a better neighborhood; we’d love the same people to live there. We’d love to have our community stay together,” he said.

Strautmanis again cited the public feedback and partnership the Foundation has solicited through the process, saying residents have started new businesses ahead of an influx of tourists to the South Side: “People are already rolling up their sleeves, making plans to be a part of this.”

“What we see today really has been part of a process that I think everybody in the city should be really proud of,” said Strautmanis of public involvement in planning for the OPC before commending Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) for her championship of the OPC. “We wouldn’t be here without her,” he said.

“I am glad that we are moving forward, and we’re going to keep moving. It’s a good thing,” said Hairston.

Strautmanis gave no estimation about when the federal environmental and historical reviews of the project will conclude but said the Foundation is fully cooperating with the ongoing process, promising the OPC’s impact would be “more than positive.” He said the Foundation wants to break ground “as soon as possible,” later saying next year as has been planned.

The OPC site will be transferred from the Chicago Park District to the city, which then will permit the Obama Foundation to construct the OPC and operate it for 99 years after a one-time payment of $10. The city will own the land and campus. The Foundation will be required to maintain an endowment at or exceeding expected construction costs, and the workforce hired to build the OPC, who must be paid “the prevailing wage rate as ascertained by the Illinois Department of Labor,” must meet diversity benchmarks.

As a 501(c)(3) federal tax-exempt organization that also is governed by the Illinois Museum Act that authorizes such development in Chicago public parkland, the Foundation is limited as to what it may do with the OPC.

The transportation ordinance will close a section of Cornell Drive in Jackson Park, widen parallel sections of Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue, restructure a number of intersections and improve pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure, including a number of new roadway underpasses.

The coalition of South Side organizations pressing for an OPC community benefits agreement held a short press conference before the City Council meeting, calling for dedicated new and rehabilitated housing for income-eligible families, a property tax freeze for long-time residents and investment from the Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago into a trust for rental assistance and business development initiatives.

The passed ordinance does call for monitoring property values and other indicators that suggest demographic change and displacement as well as a commitment to “implementing measures to preserve economic diversity, home ownership and affordability for long-term residents in the communities surrounding the OPC.”

At a press conference following the votes, Emanuel called the OPC a boon for jobs and development alongside the new grocery store slated to come to South Shore, an industrial park in Hegewisch, theater renovations in Logan Square and Uptown and projects at Union Station and O’Hare International Airport.

“When you put it all together, there’s going to be close to 7,000 to 9,000 jobs, creating tremendous economic opportunity, tremendous jobs from the southeast corner all the way to the northwest corner and areas and neighborhoods between,” said the mayor.

While lauding the OPC’s economic windfalls, Emanuel said the project’s cultural and educational benefits “that will be felt for generations to come.”

Emanuel said he looked forward to “clarity” and moving forward from the conclusion of the Protect Our Parks lawsuit. Noting the Chicago museums that have a relationship with the Park District, he said the OPC will not be different and claimed, having overseen the government’s interactions with the process since Chicago bid to host the site, “good standing about why this is the right thing to do for the City of Chicago and, more importantly, why it’s legally correct.”

When asked about the city’s monitoring of property values and how it would prevent displacement around the OPC, Emanuel pointed to the South Shore grocery as “a sign of benefit to the community.”

“We’re going to be monitoring it as a city to see, with an ongoing committee, to check and make sure that there’s no displacement, and we’ll keep checking to make sure that we give people the reassurance. I think, though, and I’ve seen this around the city, there’s a desire for this library. They see it as an opportunity, both culturally and in education, to honor the president, and it will also have immediate economic benefits to the residents in the area,” he said.