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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Aldermen Who Rep Obama Center Neighborhoods Sit Out Press Conference, Say Mayor Must Ensure South Siders Get Construction Jobs

The mayor and governor didn't discuss how they'd employ local residents for the infrastructure projects ahead of the center's groundbreaking. "So why am I there?” Ald. Jeanette Taylor asked.

In foreground: Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th) and Jeanette Taylor (20th) speak at a July 23, 2019 press conference announcing a proposal for an Obama Center community benefits agreement.
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WOODLAWN — Two aldermen representing neighborhoods near the planned Obama Presidential Center chose not to attend Wednesday’s kickoff for prep work near the site, saying the mayor must “get on board” with their communities’ push to get South Siders more construction jobs ahead of the center’s arrival.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Gov. JB Pritzker and city and Obama Foundation officials announced Wednesday the start of city infrastructure work to prepare for the Obama Center’s planned groundbreaking in a few months.

Outside the Museum of Science and Industry, Lightfoot officially launched the Woodlawn Revolving Loan Fund, a key part of the Woodlawn affordable housing ordinance passed last fall. The city will initially commit $1.52 million to the fund for rehabilitating vacant buildings, followed by a $100,000 annual commitment.

She also committed the city to investing $100 million into the “western gateway to the Obama Center” at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove, including a renovation of the Cottage Grove Green Line station, a new office building and a new health care center.

Local Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th) and Jeanette Taylor (20th) chose not to attend the news conference, as first reported by the Hyde Park Herald. Lightfoot publicly announced the gathering 90 minutes in advance.

“This was about the park district doing some cleaning and [the Chicago Department of Transportation] moving some poles,” Taylor told Block Club. “Why did we need to have a press conference for that?”

Taylor said she’ll hold an April 21 meeting with ward residents, featuring representatives of the Obama Foundation and presidential center construction team Lakeside Alliance. They’ll discuss “how we get people from our community employed” in the construction and permanent jobs the Obama Center will create.

Neighbors have also continued to push the city to ensure employment benefits for Woodlawn, after securing some of the “most significant” housing protections in recent memory with last fall’s housing ordinance.

But officials at Wednesday’s conference weren’t “talking about any of that, so why am I there?” Taylor said.

Lightfoot’s office must facilitate better communication among ward residents, aldermen and city departments, she said.

“We need to work together,” Taylor said. “The city does not need to work in silos on a project that the community has been at odds [over] for so long. Now that the community is willing to work together, the mayor’s office needs to get on board.”

When asked how the mayor can ensure the Obama Center prep work is completed equitably, Hairston said, “How about talking with the aldermen?”

Ahead of Wednesday’s conference, Hairston asked Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar “who was going to be hired from the community” to complete the infrastructure work, she said.

Hairston’s questions “have not fully been answered,” though she “had a very good conversation” with Lightfoot Tuesday evening on the subject, she said.

“We look forward to the real [Obama Center] groundbreaking, and will continue working with community residents,” Hairston said. “We would like to encourage the city to take a different workforce approach — one closer to the one the Obama Foundation is taking — that will ensure jobs stay in our neighborhoods.”

The Obama Foundation has pledged to reserve 35 percent of construction jobs for South and West siders and award half of the construction contracts to minority-owned, women-owned and other “diverse firms.”

“I wouldn’t read too much into [the aldermen] being here or not being here,” Lightfoot said Wednesday. “… Fundamentally, they want what we all want — to make sure that this community benefits from the work that’s been put in here, and we’ve made a commitment to them.”

Construction-related jobs, infrastructure improvements and other city investments made around the Obama Center will bring “transformative change” for Black and brown communities near Jackson Park, Lightfoot said.

“There has truly never been a better time to invest in our South Side,” Lightfoot said. “… We urge others to follow our lead and bet on the South Side.”

The Obama Foundation plans to start the center’s construction in the second half of 2021. When former President Barack Obama announced in 2016 he intended to build his presidential center in Jackson Park, it was scheduled to open this year.

The city and foundation’s plans for the Obama Center have sparked complex debates about displacement, land use, race, historical preservation and more among residents of the neighborhoods near Jackson Park.

A series of controversial federal reviews ended in February, when city officials announced the National Park Service and Federal Highway Administration had found proposed road changes in and around Jackson Park would not significantly impact the environment.

A years-long legal challenge to the Obama Center’s construction in Jackson Park continues, with nonprofit Protect Our Parks filing a second lawsuit Wednesday. The suit alleges the federal reviews were improperly done, as they did not consider the possibility of building the center elsewhere.

The group filed a petition with the Supreme Court on its first lawsuit last month, after a U.S. Circuit Court panel ruled against the case last summer.

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