By AARON GETTINGER
Mayor Lori Lightfoot convened a by-invitation-only meeting Sunday with stakeholders involved in the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) to discuss housing, workforce development, public safety and small business support.
According to sources who were present, Lightfoot opened the meeting by saying she is committed to a robust community engagement process around the OPC, calling it a transformational development for South Siders. She also discussed the importance of community members being able to stay in their homes and benefit from the OPC and its importance to tourism and cultural institutions on the South Side.
Held at the South Shore Cultural Center, invitees — from Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago representatives to the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Coalition, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) and Woodlawn pastor and real estate developer Byron Brazier —
got 90 seconds to address the meeting. Lightfoot, who stressed that she wanted stakeholders to be collaborative with one another, mostly listened and took notes, according to sources who were present.
She responded to a few speakers, acknowledging concerns about the engagement of formerly incarcerated people and other most-impacted, traditionally marginalized voices in the project and calling the local homicide rate being “unacceptable.” She did not, however, directly address the CBA housing ordinance introduced to City Council last week.
“I think her goal was to begin an engagement process with the community so she could have a conversation with the community,” said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), who attended. “Not rely on what other people are saying, but to hear it for herself and be able to talk to people about it, to talk to community residents.”
Hairston declined to speculate on whether Lightfoot was planning to pursue new policies on the OPC, as the City Council considers the CBA ordinance after passing legislation allowing construction of and funding the OPC last year.
According to the agenda, the discussion then shifted around the question, “What can your organization bring to the table to support this effort?”
The meeting was not publicized or listed on Lightfoot’s public schedule.
Attendees received a new OPC engagement timeline from Lightfoot. At least four community roundtables are planned for the fall, winter and into next year, though no information about format was given. A public meeting on the memorandum of agreement is planned for the fall, with the end of the NHPA Section 106 process scheduled for the winter. A public review and meeting of the draft environmental assessment are also due to happen over the winter, with the National Environmental Policy Act-required federal review set to conclude in 2020.
The Obama Foundation said a year ago that the OPC’s groundbreaking would occur this year.
The Saturday meeting represents Lightfoot’s greatest intervention into the debates surrounding the OPC, which has galvanized the public with dreams of economic development parity for the South Side as well as grave concerns about displacement in Woodlawn and South Shore and a lawsuit over the placement of the privately run center in Jackson Park.
At a press conference the morning after winning the April runoff election, Lightfoot said she would work with “multiple sides, to sit down and understand the nuances that have not been reported in the media.”
“We should be grateful that the presidential center is coming here, but we need to make sure that we give justice to people in those communities. We can’t have development mean displacement,” Lightfoot said then. “I think there are a lot of people who are stakeholders — people who haven’t spoken up, people who are living in those communities and want to make sure that they’re not going to be displaced by development. We have to make sure that we are looking to and taking care of those folks as well.”
On July 26, after Hairston and Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) — who was out of town and unable to attend the Saturday meeting, though she sent a representative — introduced the CBA ordinance to City Council, Lightfoot said in a press conference she would go to the South Side, sit down and listen to people, though she declined to comment on the ordinance.
Sources said Obama Foundation Chief Engagement Officer Michael Strautmanis, South Side Ald. Michelle A. Harris (8th), Emerald South Economic Development Collaborative head Ghian Foreman, Chicago Community Trust Senior Director of Community Impact Joanna Trotter, Blacks in Green founder Naomi Davis, U. of C. Office of Civic Engagement Executive Director of Community Partnerships Wendy Williams, South Side Neighbors for Hope head Erin Adams, Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization deputy director Shannon Bennett, Southside Together Organizing for Power executive director Alex Goldenberg, Neighborhood Network Alliance head Val Free, Jackson Park Advisory Council president Louise McCurry, DuSable Museum CEO Perri Irmer, Westside Health Authority Community Organizing Director Charles Perry, Deputy Mayor for Neighborhood and Economic Development Samir Mayekar, Chicago Chief Equity Officer Candace Moore and representatives from the Chicago Department of Transportation, the Chicago Park District, the Jackson Park Yacht Club and the KLEO Community Family Life Center, 119 E. Garfield Blvd., among roughly 35 others, attended the Saturday meeting.
“Friends of the Parks spoke at this meeting from a perspective of talking about housing as an ally member of the CBA Coalition and affirming the reality of these issues, of folks being displayed from communities after major park investments, is a real thing,” said executive director Juanita Irizarry when reached for comment, noting an inability to talk about the merits or logistics of putting the OPC in public parkland. “We did that because we have been concerned that often voices that have challenged the Obama Center or have brought up these concerns have been demonized.”
Lightfoot did not return request for comment by press time.