CITY HALL — Aldermen Thursday endorsed a revised agreement that will allow the Obama Presidential Center to be built in Jackson Park, as officials acknowledged for the first time that the $500 million project could push longtime South Side residents out of their homes.
Department of Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman said city officials “recognized the potential for displacement” near the center, set to be built in Ald. Leslie Hairston’s 5th Ward.
“We will closely monitor property values and other indicators and implement appropriate measures,” Reifman said.
The Committee on Housing and Real Estate unanimously endorsed the revised master agreement, use agreement and environmental agreement between the Obama Foundation and the city. The agreement turns over 19.3 acres of city land to the foundation for 99 years for the nominal cost of $10.
Former President Barack Obama and the Obama Foundation have resisted calls to sign a community benefits agreement that mandates 30 percent of all new and rehabilitated housing to be set aside for low- and moderate-income Chicagoans as well as a property tax freeze to thwart gentrification.
When Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) pressed Reifman for specific indicators and values that would be monitored, Reifman said he would work with community groups.
Hairston vowed to update the committee on the impact of the center, which is scheduled to break ground next year and open in 2022, adding that different neighborhoods near the center in Woodlawn have different needs.
“I will make sure to update the committee,” Hairston said, adding that she hopes the mechanism can be used to monitor the impact of other high-profile developments. “This has been a good exercise in Democracy.”
The hearing before the Housing Committee was in contrast to a raucous meeting of the Plan Commission in May, when dozens of critics of the plan urged officials to send the proposal back to the drawing board to better protect longtime residents and preserve open space in Jackson Park. Instead, the two-hour hearing was mostly filled with paeans to Obama, the first African American president.
Ald. Joe Moore (49th) said he was pleased to be a part of “a tiny sliver of history” in helping the center move forward.
Even though Ald. David Moore (17th) cast the lone vote in May against the Obama Center over infrastructure concerns in his own ward, he grew emotional about what the project would mean for black men struggling to graduate from college, or to find a job after finishing a prison sentence.
“This center is set to turn hope into promise,” Moore said, alluding to a slogan used in Obama’s first presidential run.
No longer will critics of the former president be able to say he did not help Chicago and its residents, Moore said.
“We bury that entire narrative today,” Moore said.
In May, Moore said he could not vote to approve a project that needs an estimated $175 million in infrastructure improvements when he has roads in his South Side ward that have not been repaired for decades.
The state budget approved in May included $172 million to cover the cost of closing Cornell and Marquette drives, diverting southbound traffic on Cornell to Stony Island Avenue, and widening Stony Island and Lake Shore Drive while adding stoplights and extending barrier walls on Hayes Drive.
Only one speaker urged aldermen to require the Obama Foundation to sign a community benefits agreement.
Jackie Paige asked aldermen how they would ensure that the promises made by the former president and his foundation are sustained.
“A community benefits agreement is designed to look out for the little guy,” Paige said. “A community benefits agreement is needed to offset agreements made in back rooms. “You don’t want to put it on paper? There’s something wrong with that.”
However, Leon Finney, a businessman, pastor, and civic leader, said he was not concerned about gentrification, but the South Side’s loss of population.
“I’m not worried about who is moving in,” Finney said. “We should worry about who is moving out.”
Several aldermen said they were confused about the Obama Foundation’s decision not to establish the center as a traditional presidential library maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration.
Mike Strautmanis, the head of civic engagement for the foundation, told aldermen that Obama wanted to establish “a new model of a presidential library” that digitizes the paper records, while creating “an experience of cultural renewal.”
While Obama’s digitized records will be available at the center, the physical records will be kept in storage in Kansas City, Kansas, Strautmanis said.
Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) said she found that confusing.
“We have plenty of warehouses in Chicago,” Mell said.
However, Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) said the center would be a “big benefit” to Chicago, even if it didn’t have Obama’s papers.
“We’ll have the money maker,” Burnett said, such as a replica of Obama’s Oval Office.
That museum will be part of a four-building campus that includes an underground parking facility, a plaza, play areas, pedestrian and bicycle paths and landscaped open space, according to the revised measure. Those plans were approved in May by the City Council, and the city will own the center once it is built, according to the agreement.
However, the center will get no taxpayer dollars to operate, although parking fees will be used to defray the cost of operations, according to the agreement.
The center will be open free to the public 52 days a year, in line with other Chicago museums, according to the agreement.
The deal also requires the foundation to prove to the city that it can raise enough money to build the center and to establish an endowment to cover the long-term costs of running the facility, according to the agreement.
However, the agreements requires the city to repay the foundation for up to $75,000 to perform environmental testing of the site.
One of the buildings will include a branch of the Chicago Public Library, and the foundation has pledged to “strive” to award 50 percent of all contracts to firms owned by blacks, Latinos and women, more than current law requires.
A federal lawsuit filed by public parks activists against the city of Chicago and the Chicago Park District to block the construction of the center in Jackson Park is working its way through the courts, and the center must also undergo a federal review.
The full City Council is set to approve the revised agreements at its next meeting, scheduled for Oct. 31.
Aldermen also approved the sale of seven city-owned parcels at Roosevelt Road and Richmond Street for $1 each to A Safe Haven Foundation.
The project, located across the street from Douglas Park, will include 90 affordable residential units, including 75 earmarked for Chicago Housing Authority residents.