South Siders lobby for promises in writing as Obama library takes shape
The Obama Foundation has yet to choose which South Side park will host the president’s library.
But whether it’s Washington Park or Jackson Park, nearby residents are already dreaming big about the potential ripple effects. They want jobs and housing — and they want it in writing.
“Think about it,” chuckled Sandra Bivins of the 51st Street Business Association. “You learn over the years that you need contractual agreements with folks or else they’re not going to keep their word.”
Bivins speaks from experience.
Chicago was one of a handful of cities that received $100 million in neighborhood empowerment zone funding under the Clinton Administration.
“What we didn’t do at that time or what we didn’t understand at that time is that once you lay out the groundwork and they say ‘okay cool, this is cool,’ how do you get them to follow the agreement that they made with you?”
Years after the city doled out those federal funds, researchers found the money didn’t help some of the most impoverished neighborhoods. Politically connected groups reaped most of the rewards. Residents learned they can’t always trust city hall to make sure the community gets its fair share.
Bivins is part of a South Side coalition pushing for a formal community benefits agreement, or CBA.
University of Illinois at Chicago professor Rachel Weber studies CBAs, which started in California.
“These were attempts to have community organizations often in a coalition negotiate a separate and legally binding agreement with the developer over some large-scale redevelopment project,” Weber said.
In exchange for certain provisions, community groups agree to get behind the project.
The first successful CBAs were negotiated in Los Angeles. In 1998 there was the Hollywood and Highland Center, home to the Oscars. Then a CBA attached to the Staples Center, home of the Lakers, ensured jobs for affected residents and affordable housing.
Despite talk of one during the failed 2016 Olympics bid, Chicago has never had a successful CBA.
But more than 10 miles south of downtown, another group is trying to change that.
A newly paved path on 87th and Lake Shore Drive used to be steel mills. When the industry shut down decades ago, this part of the city experienced major decline.
Now, the brownfield is slowly turning green with a postcard-worthy view in a new park that’s a tribute to the former steel workers. Grassy knolls overlooking Lake Michigan are perfect for a summer picnic.
“This is prime real estate,” said resident Arnold Bradford. “We’re right on the lakefront. This is probably one of the best development sites right now in the city of Chicago. You can look downtown, you can see the skyline you can look to Indiana.”
The colossal development he’s referring to is called Lakeside, stretching between the 7th and 10th wards. The mix of retail, residential and commercial space will be bigger than the Loop and take decades to build.
Longtime residents like Yvette Moyo want a say in the process.
“My father worked here, my brother worked here. I’m sort of representing the families of union workers or U.S. steelworkers who feel that we have our DNA right here in this soil,” Moyo said.
Bradford and Moyo are members of the Coalition for a Lakeside Community Benefits Agreement.
Amalia NietoGomez is the group’s coordinator and said the coalition doesn’t oppose the development as long as they’re included.
“All the skyscrapers that are downtown were built by steel mills that were on the Southeast Side and right now this area has 17 percent unemployment; it has 30 percent poverty levels. We want to return the Southeast Side back to its glory days when local people were employed, and families built generations in the houses that were here,” NietoGomez said.
It’s unclear whether residents will be able to negotiate CBAs over Lakeside and the Obama library. Representatives for both projects declined to comment.
UIC’s Weber said one reason Chicago hasn’t had a successful CBA is because the city thinks tax increment financing, or TIF, plans do the job.
“In these 100-page documents that are signed whenever there’s some sort of allocation of TIF funding, you’ll see a whole section in a redevelopment agreement that lists these community benefits,” Weber said.
But that’s not going far enough for these South Siders.
They want to be the ones driving negotiations for community benefits.