Don’t need OPC for development, Brazier asserts

Michael Strautmanis on the OPC: ‘I really challenge anybody to find a more transparent project.’ (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff Writer

WOODLAWN — At a Nov. 15 meeting of the 1Woodlawn community organization that featured an overview of a commissioned demographic analysis of the neighborhood, Apostolic Church of God pastor Byron T. Brazier, who convened the meeting, said the development of Woodlawn would continue regardless of the Obama Presidential Center’s establishment or failure.

“We had the plan before the library said ‘Jackson Park,’ and we still have a plan,” Brazier said. “There are many communities across this country that have continued to grow without a presidential library. So our future does not hinge on whether they’re here or not.”

While the Obama Foundation has maintained steadfast optimism that the OPC plans will come to fruition and be a boon to the South Side, the pending lawsuit against its establishment in Jackson Park, unconcluded federal reviews of the proposed campus site and concern over the fates of poor and working class Woodlawn residents that has generated a movement for a community benefits agreement (CBA) have cast a shadow over the project.

Brazier, the patriarch of one of Woodlawn’s most prominent families, told the audience packed inside of his church that the neighborhood would go on regardless of how much development continued. He pointed out how Washington Park has moved on following Chicago’s failed bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, which would have been centered in that neighborhood.

“Though there may be a lot of conversations that go on in the papers about what the possibilities are, I want you all to know for a fact that I’m not going anywhere, that we are still going to pursue our destiny and we are not going to wait for somebody else to define what our destiny should be,” said Brazier.

The Chicago Tribune reported last month about the intensifying “worry and anxiety” on the South Side about the OPC, especially after Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a steadfast champion of the project, decided not to seek reelection.

Obama Foundation chief engagement officer Michael Strautmanis spoke before Brazier, and reiterated the emotional benefit and financial windfalls that the OPC could bring to the whole South Side throughout his 40-minute speech and closed with a barb directed at OPC naysayers.

“Don’t let anybody tell you we haven’t put our commitments in writing,” he said, directing the audience to the Obama Foundation’s Community Commitments pledge listed on their website and vowing that it “will be updated as we achieve and accomplish things.”

“I really challenge anybody to find a more transparent project. I know that people are cynical, but we can’t let cynicism turn into fake news,” Strautmanis said, pausing for emphasis and sparking applause. “President and Mrs. Obama are not going to torpedo their community. And we need to stop allowing people to have that conversation, because what’s going to happen is we’re going to let that cynicism take folks who want and need to be a part of this and have them sitting on the sidelines thinking this is the same-old, same-old.”

The AECOM engineering firm that conducted the demographic study of Woodlawn found that the neighborhood is growing and becoming more dense; real estate transactions have increased in value even while retail remains low. Woodlawn’s per capita population growth from 2018 to this year ranks fifth among Chicago’s lakefront neighborhoods. Its percent-growth rate, 1.7, compares to 0.7 along the lakefront on average and 0.1 in the city.

Woodlawn remains less dense than any North Side lakefront neighborhood as well as Hyde Park–Kenwood, South Shore and the Grand Boulevard community area, but its density-per-net-acre increased from 16.2 people in 2010 to 18.6 this year. Around 27 households have been established in Woodlawn every year since 2010.

AECOM’s estimation of Woodlawn’s employment growth, 5.5 percent, compares to 1.4 percent on the lakefront on average and 1.5 percent in Chicago.

The per capita retail inventory in Woodlawn, however, is among the lowest in lakefront neighborhoods, with a decrease since 2010 “due to an increasing population and a stagnant occupied retail inventory.” Retail sales per capita, $2,363 compared to the lakefront average of $13,967 and $11,899 in Hyde Park, are also quite low, which the report ascribes to “retail leakage into Hyde Park.”

Permits have grown 6.7 percent in Woodlawn since 2010, compared with 3.2 percent on the lakefront and 2.8 percent in Chicago. The average value of all Woodlawn real estate transactions has increased from $91,769 in 2010 to $202,498 in 2017; the average value of a residential transaction in the neighborhood in 2017 was $170,653.

Brazier’s son, Byron T. Brazier II, spoke after the pastor, presenting a plan of development in Woodlawn, but it currently lacks any capital or developers for implementation.