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Obama Presidential Center Faces Local Hurdles

In order to make his presidential center a reality, former President Barack Obama has to navigate something he once knew well: Chicago politics. 

And while other federal approval processes play out, the Obama Foundation, which is creating the center, must get its construction plans approved by City Hall.

“This week is a big week,” said David Simas, the CEO of the Barack Obama Foundation. “But we view it as one step in a process that will continue, and the process for us began three years ago.”

The first of several meetings is Thursday and it’s certain to draw a crowd — many of whom are concerned with how the center will benefit the city’s South Side communities. Here’s a look at what hurdles the Obamas will have to jump over in Chicago before the project can move forward.

City Hall approval

The Obamas want to build the presidential center on the western edge of South Side Jackson Park, where the World’s Fair was held in 1893. City officials have been supportive of this since 2015 when they approved a transfer of land from the park district to the city.

Now, that land must be rezoned for different purposes, and a lease agreement with the Obama Foundation needs to be executed. In order to do that, there are five separate ordinances that need to be voted on, first by the mayoral-appointed Plan Commission and then by all 50 elected aldermen.

Among the measures is a lease agreement with the Obama Foundation for the use of the land and an overall site plan that complies with the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance.

All five measures are likely to pass. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, appoints the members of the Plan Commission and the various city committees that also may need to vote on pieces of the overall project.

But that doesn’t mean construction would begin right away. Simas said there’s still another year of design for the project, mostly as it relates to the museum and the other interior spaces. Currently, the records from Obama’s time in office are housed in a temporary facility in Hoffman Estates, a Northwest suburb. The records won’t be subject to public records requests until 2022.

Community support

Since Chicago was announced as the Obamas’ pick for the presidential center in 2015, there have been dozens of meetings regarding what the presidential center would be.

There’s also been controversy.

Activists and South Side residents have been increasingly vocal about what this project will do for the surrounding neighborhoods. Some, in particular, want to secure jobs and preserve affordable housing for longtime residents.

Some have called for a formal Community Benefits Ordinance that could include a property tax freeze for longtime residents, monitor hiring, and set aside 30 percent of all new housing for low-income and working families. But Obama himself, the foundation, and city officials have declined to sign one.

Parks advocates have also asked the Plan Commission to consider alternatives to the foundation’s plan to close portions of Cornell Drive, the main street that runs through Jackson Park.  

Land use issues in the neighborhoods around the proposed presidential center are certain to come up as the project winds its way through City Hall. After all, the city owns much of the undeveloped land near where the center will be built.

Wednesday afternoon, a coalition of community activists held a vigil against displacement on a large swath of vacant city-owned land on 63rd Street and University Avenue.

“We are for the Obama Center — we just don't want to be pushed out," said Sharon Payne, a spokeswoman for the group.

The Obama Foundation doesn’t control what the city does with its land. Simas said they have made a list of commitments to the community and will continue to listen to public feedback as planning for the center continues. He said the Obamas have given a clear directive to the foundation to listen to people and make adjustments accordingly.  And in classic Chicago fashion, that’s included door knocking.

“I went out and knocked on probably 100 doors in a couple of streets in the South Shore neighborhood here in Chicago,” Simas, a Massachusetts native, said. “Saturday morning, I went out with my clipboard, some materials, started on Oglesby Street and went one bungalow after another beautiful bungalow. People were overwhelmingly supportive [about] what this will be.”

Parks lawsuit

But this week, another local hurdle that might threaten the construction of the Obama Presidential Center went up. A group, known as Protect Our Parks Inc., and three individuals filed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago and the Chicago Park District to stop the transfer of public park land to a private entity.

The plaintiffs said they don’t want to halt the entire project, but rather they want it moved out of historic Jackson Park.

“They don’t need Jackson Park,” said Charlotte Adelman, one of the plaintiffs. “Actually, the Washington Park area is a superior area if one is genuinely interested in economic development for a deprived community. Jackson Park is not. It’s right on the lake; it’s a very fancy, upper class area.”

A plot of vacant land in the Washington Park neighborhood was considered as a possible site for the center, but ultimately, Jackson Park was selected.

The lawsuit alleges the city broke several laws that exist to preserve public parks.

Mayor Emanuel said it’s a “frivolous” lawsuit from outsiders. Adelman does live in Wilmette, but the other two plaintiffs are Chicagoans.

The mayor took particular umbrage at the lawsuit’s argument that there was some kind of bait-and-switch because the Obama Presidential Center will not be a presidential library in the traditional sense. Obama’s records will be digitized as part of the Presidential Libraries System administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. But the center will be privately operated.  

“Welcome to the 21st century,” Emanuel said. “(The records) can be both in New York and in Chicago. This is an incredible investment. It’s one of the largest private sector investments in the South Side in decades — thousands of jobs, thousands of opportunities in education and cultural enrichment. It’s going to be the first presidential library that will have a neighborhood library as part of it.”

As of publication, the city had yet to file a legal response to the lawsuit. The Plan Commission is scheduled to meet Thursday, and the full City Council meets on May 23.

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.

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