Obama Surprises Residents, Tries To Win Over Critics of Presidential Center

Obama Surprises Residents, Tries To Win Over Critics of Presidential Center

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Former President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance at a public meeting about the Obama Presidential Center, a move interpreted by some political observers as a way to drum up more support for the center as it faces lingering questions from various community groups.

The Obama Foundation held the meeting on Tuesday to provide the final public presentation of its plans for the Obama Presidential Center before those plans head to the city’s Plan Commission for final approval.

But as the foundation’s plans make their way through City Hall, residents and activists have been increasingly concerned about the impact the center will have on the South Side, which includes everything from gentrification to proposed road work that could disrupt the area to a potential loss of green space.

WBEZ reporters Natalie Moore and Claudia Morell joined

Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia to offer four takeaways from Tuesday night’s public meeting.

Obama Center public meeting attendees check out a model display, Tuesday, February 27, 2018.

1.  The Obama Foundation ‘isn’t trying to do a land grab’

Claudia Morell: Former president Barack Obama was making a personal plea — was almost blunt about it — and said this is going to be a cataclysmic development for the South Side and everyone’s going to benefit. And he said the foundation is a nonprofit and that they aren’t trying to do a land grab or that gentrification won’t be an issue until his daughters have children.

Natalie Moore: The word “gentrification” becomes a lightning rod in communities when research has shown black neighborhoods on the South Side are not changing. People thought that Englewood was going to turn from black to white overnight with Whole Foods’ arrival. More than a year later, that still hasn’t happened.

2. Some in the community still want guaranteed jobs and a housing trust in writing

Moore: A community benefits agreement (or CBA) is a binding agreement that lays out the benefits that come with a development. You typically see CBAs when a private developer comes in — you know, for sports stadiums etc. The Obama Foundation says, well, we’re not a developer. In the 1980s, as a community organizer, this might have been something he would have been fighting for.

The people want to have a number of guaranteed jobs and a housing trust. The Obama Foundation is doing some of those things, but these communities want guarantees in writing. The community’s distrust is of the other players here, not the foundation. They want the city of Chicago and University of Chicago to sign on to making sure there is equity in the neighborhood.

Morell: The Chicago Park District was there to talk about the new turf field that the foundation is going to be funding, the Chicago Department of Transportation (or CDOT) talked about the widening of roads around the park, and the city’s planning and development department talked about the economic benefits the community is going to see. Some residents said that the development was really important because this is the first time something this major was happening on the South Side.

3. Concerns from different groups of people

Moore: When it comes to “green space,” there are neighbors who love Jackson Park who are very vocal and they are very organized. Here’s where race and class come into play. The people who want the CBA tend to be black people. The people who are saying, “Don’t take away my bird sanctuary,” those tend to be white people.

And it’s not to say black people don’t care about green space, but Jackson Park has so many uses for people. I see black families with cookouts, picnics. And then there are people there for the respite: the Japanese garden, the yacht club. And there’s also youth programming. It means so many different things to so many people, and that’s what will have to be front of mind here. The Obamas have said they want this park to be used more and that they want South Side amenities like the North Side has.

4. Obama made a plea to focus on the greater good — not your morning commute

Morell: I don’t think the former president really addressed the concerns of people who really take issue with how this would affect morning commutes, whether or not the building design is ugly, and how it would impact the way of life in the area.

Last night’s meeting was more about drumming up support for the center overall and saying that the aforementioned issues should be put aside for the greater good of the South Side and not the individual needs of your morning commute.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity by Gabrielle Wright. Click the “play” button to hear the full segment.