Former President Barack Obama sent a message of hope and encouraged Americans to “get involved, get engaged and stand up.” in 2017. Now the former President Obama Presidential Center gets green light from full City Council
Culminating a three-year campaign by the Obama Foundation, the Chicago City Council on Wednesday approved measures to allow construction of the Obama Presidential Center.
The approval, which came on a 47-1 vote, means the foundation can move forward into federal reviews of the project with city support as a badge of endorsement.
No public comment was allowed during the council meeting, and aldermen discussed the matter for just over an hour — a contrast to the extended and heated debate last week during a Plan Commission hearing. Hundreds of residents, activists and leaders of cultural institutions testified both in favor of the presidential center and against it. The commission voted overwhelmingly in support, as did the Zoning Committee on Tuesday, which paved the way for Wednesday’s City Council vote.
The City Council decision was just another step in a long process.
Besides the federal review — which is required because Jackson Park, the site of the center, is on the National Register of Historic Places — the foundation still must secure a formal long-term contract to lease Jackson Park from the city. The foundation already has hired a collective of construction firms to build the center, but they have to develop and hire a workforce.
Then there is the fundraising. Facing an expected cost surpassing $500 million, the Obama Foundation has been hiring staff and tapping the Obamas’ network of donors to pay for the privately financed project.
After the vote, Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped away from the dias and, in front of news cameras, called former President Barack Obama to deliver word of the vote.
Obama responded later in the afternoon in a tweet:
“This Center is for the leaders of tomorrow who are ready to step up and build the world as it should be,” he wrote. “Michelle and I are grateful to Chicagoans and the Chicago City Council for making it happen.”
In May 2015, former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama announced they wanted to build a facility on the South Side. About a year later, the couple selected Jackson Park as the location for the sprawling complex, explaining that the site would place it near the Museum of Science and Industry and provide a view of the skyline while benefiting struggling neighborhoods like South Shore, Woodlawn and Washington Park.
But from the moment the details were unveiled, the project has exposed sensitive divisions in the South Side community along racial and class lines.
Some residents have expressed concern that the project will lead to gentrification and displacement in the surrounding communities. Others objected to the use of city parkland for the project or complained about increased traffic the project would bring to the neighborhood.
On the other side, supporters said that the project will provide a much-needed investment that could lead to a transformation of the South Side and provide jobs, workforce training and opportunities for African-Americans, Latinos and others who aren’t normally considered for large-scale projects.
At the meeting, City Council members made a point of showing their stance on the center before the roll call. In a departure from protocol, aldermen stood individually and expressed their support to Emanuel, a former chief of staff to President Obama and an enthusiastic backer of the project.
Ald. Leslie Hairston, 5th, who ushered the policies to make the center possible, was not present at the meeting but sent a letter to express her support.
The center will “change the lives of families for generations,” she wrote in her letter, which was read aloud by Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th. “Young people will be inspired by the story of President Obama.”
Hairston said the center would be a “win for our neighborhoods that need so much.”
Ald. Carrie Austin, who represents the 34th Ward on the South Side, echoed that sentiment. “It’s more than just a breath of fresh air for the city of Chicago,” she said.
Only Ald. David Moore, 17th, voted against the matter. Moore said he could not support it because the development would require about $175 million of city infrastructure improvements and it was not clear where the city would get that funding. Voting to spend money on the center, while streets in his Englewood community remain riddled with potholes and easily flood, would be a vote against his constituents, he said.
“I’m more passionate for my constituents. This library would be great … but when we talk about $175 million, that part disturbs me,” he said.
Ald. Pat Dowell, who represents the 3rd Ward on the South Side, said she supports the center but is concerned about protecting lower-income residents who live near the site. She said the city has to be proactive about developing the city-owned vacant property near Jackson Park. And the foundation has to ensure that residents don’t fear the project or displacement.
“When Jackson Park was announced, I knew the city won a prize,” Dowell said. “It uplifts the South Side and provides a new face on what’s happening in our communities.”
As Moore spoke, activists who are pushing for a community benefits agreement interrupted the proceedings. Seated in the balcony area, they began pounding on the protective window and chanting, “No CBA, no vote.”
The Community Benefits Agreement Coalition wanted a council vote on the center delayed until an ordinance guaranteeing protections for affordable housing could be introduced and approved. On Wednesday, activists pivoted their pressure from the foundation to Emanuel.
“There has been talk about a neighborhood stabilization plan … but right now there is no plan, and the devil truly is in the details. Will that plan include aggressive measures to preserve and expand affordable housing, including a 30 percent set-aside, or will it be a repackaging of existing but inadequate measures to say, look, we addressed your concern?” Alex Goldenberg, an activist with the coalition, said in a statement. “We need an aggressive plan to stop displacement, that plan, is the CBA Ordinance.”
Before the meeting, a Hyde Park resident, Mary Anton, spoke in support of the development.
“For most of my life, I have seen benefits accrue largely to other parts of the city,” she said, reading a prepared statement. “I look forward to witnessing the reawakening of the South Side.”