Former President Barack Obama introduces a rendering for his Chicago lakefront presidential center at a community event at the South Shore Cultural Center in May 2017.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Will Obama’s Presidential Center Invigorate or Gentrify Chicago’s South Side?

Economic impact is projected at $246 million annually. Neighborhood sentiment is strongly pro-Center. But how to address persistent concerns about an environmental lawsuit, traffic disruptions and the refusal to sign a Community Benefits Agreement?

Story by Audrey F. Henderson

Published on Mar 18, 2019

Don’t call it a “library.”

The Obama Presidential Center (OPC) is the official name of the proposed complex to commemorate the nation’s 44th President, slated for location in Jackson Park, on Chicago’s South Side. None of the actual papers and documents from Barack Obama’s two terms will live there. Instead, existing facilities within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) system will store those documents, with digitized copies of nonclassified documents made available online. However, the Center is projected to include a branch of the Chicago Public Library, while the grounds will feature an incline suitable for sledding in winter, an outdoor track, indoor athletic facilities, community gardens and outdoor food trucks. The Barack Obama Presidential Library website, administered by NARA, is already live, housing whitehouse.gov archives from Obama’s presidency.

In May 2015, the Obama Foundation chose Chicago, the former President’s adopted hometown and the actual hometown of the former First Lady, over Hawaii (where Obama was born) and New York City (where he attended Columbia University). In July 2016, the Foundation announced its decision to locate the Center in Jackson Park, a parcel near Lake Michigan on Chicago’s South Side, selecting the site over Washington Park, located further west across Midway Plaisance.

The buildings within the Center are projected to total up to 225,000 square feet and will occupy approximately 19 of Jackson Park’s 543 acres. With a projected height of 235 feet, the Center’s main building would tower over the park.

“This is an exciting model for the Obama Presidential Center, [to be located] in the community that gave them so much, to give back to that community,” says Michael Strautmanis, Vice President of Civic Engagement for the Obama Foundation. “Being in an urban neighborhood, being so connected and integrated into the community is a real opportunity.”

The consensus is that Chicago and Chicagoans are pleased they were chosen to house the presidential center of someone the city considers its own. But the project has generated considerable controversy on several fronts, including the location and design of the Center.

The Jackson Park location is the subject of a lawsuit by the nonprofit environmental watchdog organization Protect Our Parks that is under consideration in the courts. Odds are fairly well stacked in the Obama Center’s favor, but that the lawsuit has been allowed to proceed at all should translate at the very least into a construction delay.

A rendering of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, viewed from the South (Image by DBOX)

Plans for the Center also include closing a significant portion of Cornell Drive, a busy thoroughfare that bisects the park. The closure would allow for the creation of a “Museum Campus South” — an uninterrupted parcel of land with unimpeded pedestrian traffic from the western portion of Jackson Park to Lake Michigan. Opponents claim that the closure would create a traffic nightmare in an area already underserved by public transit, at least when compared with the city’s more affluent North Side.

Perhaps the most contentious dispute centers around the push by neighborhood stakeholders to institute a community benefits agreement (CBA). The Obama Foundation has flatly refused to agree to, negotiate, or sign such an agreement, insisting — with considerable evidence to back its claims — that it has taken significant and concrete steps to ensure that the Center brings maximum benefit to the community while minimizing the threat of displacement. But community constituents are equally resolute that — while they admire the former President and former First Lady Michelle Obama — a legally binding CBA is not only reasonable but should be instituted as a matter of standard practice.

The OPC is projected to support nearly 4,500 direct, indirect and induced jobs during construction, and an additional 2,500+ permanent direct, indirect and induced jobs once the Center is open and operating. The Center is expected to provide $675 million in economic benefits to Cook County during its construction and $246 million annually during its first decade of operation. State and local tax revenues are projected to total $16.5 million during construction and $5.9 million in state and local taxes annually once the Center is open. Projected attendance figures for the Center range between 625,000 and 760,000 visitors annually. These figures are cited in an Economic Impact Assessment statement, produced by Deloitte, that the Obama Foundation released in May 2017.

Weighing this sizeable economic impact against the environmental, traffic, and economic controversies swirling around the project, the question remains: How much will the community truly benefit from the Obama Presidential Center? Will the complex be a boon to residents, or hasten their displacement?

The Vision for the Buildings and Grounds

The design of the main building is meant to evoke an image of several hands with palms touching. However, the imagery is not immediately apparent. The initial design of the main tower resembled what architectural critic Blair Kamin described in an early critique of the Center as a heavy, pyramid-like “expanded version of a truncated obelisk.”

The design has undergone a number of refinements and revisions. For example, the original design included an above-ground parking facility on the Midway, which was roundly criticized by residents and ultimately scrapped. However, other elements of the design, including closing portions of Cornell Drive and merging Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses, have also been met with controversy, although they remain either under consideration or baked into the proposed plans.

The entire facility is designed to maximize open green space, says Strautmanis. “Most of the 19 acres of the site … is open and accessible beautiful park space that is designed to be used, enjoyed by the neighbors,” Strautmanis says. “People shouldn’t have to go downtown to Millennium Park to have a beautiful park to spend time with their families. That is an important part of what President and Mrs. Obama want to create.”

The site plan for the Cener (Credit: The Obama Foundation)

As of 2017, construction costs for the Center’s buildings were estimated to be as much as $300 million, and require an endowment of as much as $1.5 billion. That figure does not include taxpayer-funded infrastructure costs, including the projected closure of Cornell Drive, which has an estimated cost of at least $175 million. The proposed package, which includes a $10, 99-year lease to the Obama Foundation for the portion of Jackson Park slated for the Center, was approved unanimously by the Chicago City Council on Halloween 2018.

The Selection Process

The Obama Foundation initially announced an RFP in September 2014, inviting submissions by the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Hawaii, Columbia University and the University of Chicago, the ultimate winner. Proposals were not publicized, in the words of the Foundation “to encourage creativity and a range of suggestions from the applicants.”

As a response to what the Foundation named as a request from Protect Our Parks to see the winning design from the University of Chicago, downloadable links to all of the RFP and RFQ responses were posted on the website in October 2018.

The Foundation had previously chosen New York-based architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien as the lead designers for the Center. The husband-and-wife team was introduced along with Dina Griffin of the Chicago firm of Interactive Design Architects as an architectural team during a meet-and-greet at the DuSable Museum in March 2017.

In January 2017, also before the design’s unveiling, the Foundation had named New York-based Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates as the lead landscape architect for the project. The firm was selected to head a team of two Chicago-based firms: Living Habitats, with president Heidi Natura; and Site Design Group, directed by Ernie Wong.

Lakeside Alliance, a collection of five firms, was selected as construction manager for the Center in January 2018. Turner Construction Company, one of the country’s biggest construction managers, was awarded 49 percent of the construction business. The remaining 51 percent was divided between four Chicago-based, African-American owned firms: Powers & Sons Construction, UJAMAA Construction, Brown & Momen, and Safeway Construction.

How Does the Tiger Woods Golf Course Fit In?

Along with the Center itself, proposed plans call for a redesign and merging of Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a single PGA-level range designed by former golf world No. 1 Tiger Woods. Local residents are concerned that a PGA-level golf course would command PGA-level fees that they could not afford. However, revised plans for the golf course included reassurances that there would be no fees for children 17 and younger and that adult residents would be charged less than $50 to play 18 holes on the reconfigured course.

The loss of designated sanctuary space represents a second major focus of opposition to the proposed golf course. Under the proposed plan, four acres of the South Shore Nature Sanctuary would be sacrificed for the planned course. One particularly scenic lakeside location would provide what a 2018 WBBM Newsradio report labeled as “a money shot for televised tournaments.”

Cost is another issue associated with the golf course, which has been presented as a public/private project. Reconfiguration of the existing courses is estimated to cost $30 million, with an additional $30 million needed for infrastructure work including pedestrian underpasses. It is not entirely clear how closely the golf course and its costs are linked with the Obama Presidential Center, according to Jawanza Malone, Executive Director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), a member of a coalition seeking a CBA for the Obama Center.

“I don’t know definitively where things stand. What I do know is that the city has conflated the two projects. They keep saying there’s no relation. [But] as part of their framework plan, which they got the city council to approve, they included elements to renovate the golf course along with all the other changes they want to do to make the Presidential Center possible. And so they’ve already laid the groundwork to move forward with that plan. Now, the question is going to be depending on who goes to the 5th floor [of City Hall, as the new mayor], what the next steps are,” says Malone.

Malone also claims that support for the golf course itself is limited. “When it comes to the golf course there are literally three people who told me they thought the golf course was a good idea,” he says. “Now the Presidential Center, OK, let’s argue about that. But the golf course is a non-starter.”

The “Nightmare” Closure of Cornell Drive

With its main structures situated nearly adjacent to the famed Museum of Science and Industry, the Center’s design creates a “Museum Campus South” reminiscent of the Museum Campus on the lakefront just south of the Loop comprised of the Adler Planetarium, Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium. This new Jackson Park configuration involves one of the most controversial aspects of the proposed center, other than the location within the park itself: closing Cornell Drive between 60th and 67th Streets, a plan praised by Kamin.

In Frederick Law Olmsted’s original design of Jackson Park, Cornell Drive was intended to be a bridle path. The proposed plan would allow pedestrians to walk unimpeded from the Presidential Center to the Museum of Science and Industry, on to Wooded Island and the proposed golf course. Former President Obama is also a major champion of the plan to replace a section of Cornell Drive with a grassy promenade, according to the Kamin review.

Transportation to and from the Center is a relevant issue. The Center’s site is not readily accessible by the Chicago Transit Authority “L” (elevated and subway train system). The closest train station is the 59th Street Metra (commuter rail) station — but a ride from downtown costs $4.25, versus $2.50 for the “L.” The site is accessible by CTA bus, which costs $2.25, but buses are susceptible to traffic slowdowns. A Green Line “L” station that would have been practically next door to the site was torn down along with a mile of track in 1997.

In its present configuration as a major multi-lane road, Cornell Drive slices through Jackson Park, with little resemblance to the originally envisioned bridle path. However, the proposed plan for closing a stretch of the road fails to acknowledge the differences between the present Museum Campus near the South Loop and the location for the proposed Center surrounded by much less affluent neighborhoods on the city’s South Side, according to Anton Seals, Lead Steward of Grow Greater Englewood and an active advocate for a CBA for the Obama Presidential Center.

“Museum Campus is downtown and not in the middle of three poor-ass neighborhoods. And that’s a big difference [from the proposed Obama Center]. What sprung up around that Museum Campus is the South Loop that didn’t even exist 20 years ago as a neighborhood,” says Seals.

Seals also states that insufficient consideration has been given to dealing with redirecting traffic from Cornell Drive. “As a community organizer and resident of South Shore, the issue around transportation is a big one because they’re trying to close Cornell Drive. They’re underestimating; ‘Oh, it won’t cost that much time.’ It will create a nightmare,” he says.

Closing Cornell Drive presents logistical and infrastructure challenges beyond traffic jams — and according to Malone, those challenges have not received nearly enough consideration.

“They are estimating as many as 800,000 [visitors] on an annual basis … That means increased cars, increased passenger vehicles, increased public transportation demands. What is that going to do to parking? What is that going to do to road conditions? The actual physical streets?” Malone says. “How is that going to impact people who just want to be able to get in and out of their homes? Where is the study that says they’ve paid any attention to this and they have a plan for it? There isn’t one.”

“Until we started yelling about the impact that this was going to have on the three schools that are right there on Stony Island as well as the YMCA, as well as the daycare facility … nobody took into account the fact that there were plans to turn Stony Island essentially into an expressway to make up for that fact that they were going to tear up Cornell Drive. Nobody was paying that any attention. And so then they went back and revised it and talked about traffic calming measures, etc. But that was in the third iteration of what they were proposing,” Malone says.

The Push for a Community Benefits Agreement

Clifford Helm, Equitable Development Initiative Staff Attorney for Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, defines a CBA as a private agreement between a community or community coalition and a developer that is legally enforceable. He says that while other documents, such as memorandums of understanding (MOUs) perform some of the functions of a CBA, negotiating an actual CBA is preferable whenever possible.

In Chicago, residents protest a May 2018 planning commission meeting at City Hall, to press for support for a Community Benefit Agreement with the Obama Presidential Center.  (James Foster /Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

“In terms of a general CBA, of the important pieces, there are accountability, process and enforceability. Enforceability is most obvious,” Helm says.

Accountability falls to both community groups and developers. Community groups should represent the constituency for which the CBA is sought, which may or may not comprise the entire community. The developer should be sincere in the commitment to negotiate honestly, rather than engaging merely to appease the community group(s) seeking a CBA, according to Helm.

“Making sure that there is a process going forward … frequently falls on the developer and their willingness to actually engage in these conversations. What kinds of [processes] are we creating about transparency, about engagement, about the way in which things are done? So there is built into the CBA a process for creating some of the outcomes, then the community could be actively participating and supporting this thing that they’re asking for,” Helm says.

The Obama Foundation has so far adamantly refused to negotiate a CBA. According to a 2018 article in the Chicago Reader, a major objection raised by President Obama himself is that initiating a CBA negotiation will lead to an unmanageable situation where multiple organizations come out of the woodwork, each demanding a piece of the CBA pie.

“If we sign with one, two or five organizations, they’re not representing everybody on the South Side. Next thing you know, you’ve got 40 or 50 organizations — all wanting to be decision makers. We’re not going to do that,” the Reader quoted Obama as saying.

Strautmanis echoes the sentiment, stating that the Foundation’s desire was to work with the entire community surrounding the Center.

“We’re not going to pick and choose among community representatives. Because as I said, it’s a very diverse community. We’re going to impact the region and the South Side, the West Side and more. And so what we’ve done, we’re working with everyone to make sure that we’re listening to them and giving them the opportunity to partner with us and inform and build on the work that we’re doing,” Strautmanis says.

Amara Enyia, the director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce and 2019 Chicago mayoral candidate, has been an active member of the CBA coalition. She does not consider Obama’s argument a legitimate reason to refuse to negotiate a CBA.

“Identifying the parties that are bound by the CBA … is not something that should prevent it from being worked out. It’s certainly not anything that would prevent [the parties] from moving forward,” she says. “Those are details that can be worked out during the development process, during the process of negotiating the terms of the agreement,” says Enyia.

Distrust on the part of the city and the Foundation is also an impediment to negotiating a CBA, according to Malone. “There is a very real sentiment among decision makers that people who do what I do are just laying in wait to catch these people on something,” he says.

He cites his experience with negotiating the construction of a trauma center on the University of Chicago campus. “A lot of the people who were working in a coalition around the CBA were also working to get the trauma center built,” Malone says. “And part of [the hurdle] was this idea that we just wanted the university to look bad… [That] we didn’t really want a trauma center. It was ridiculous,” Malone says.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has not pushed the issue of a CBA. However, this scenario may change after the mayoral election runoff in April between former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, each of whom has expressed support for a CBA.

The Specter of Displacement

In many ways, displacement and gentrification represent the elephants in the room for the Obama Presidential Center. The disparity in income and amenities is significant between much of the south and west sides of the city and the more affluent North Side. Residents of neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed Obama Center fear that they will be priced out of their homes, especially if they are renters, says Malone.

“There’s a study that came from the Network of Woodlawn that essentially argues a 15 percent increase in rent could result in the displacement of half the renters in Woodlawn because of the income levels that are there,” says Malone. “That’s a problem.”

This fear of displacement is one of the major motivating factors behind the push to obtain a CBA. Helm and the Chicago Lawyers Committee are working with the local CBA coalition to obtain a legally binding agreement with the Foundation and the city of Chicago about the Obama Center. Despite their failure (to date), it appears the coalition’s concerns are being taken into account.

”The Obama Foundation has created some very clear processes. Not a CBA, but there is a very clear, transparent process from them around their contractors and construction,” Helm says. “Maybe it was their plan all along, but they’ve included something that at least approaches [community demands for a CBA] in their plans.”

Malone agrees that the Foundation has shown receptiveness to the community’s concerns. For instance, the Foundation has posted its commitments to the community online, along with steps they have taken to carry out those commitments. And in July 2018, the Foundation hired Chicago firm Ernest R. Sawyer Enterprises Inc. as a diversity consultant, to oversee the employment and contracting process. Founder Ernest R. Sawyer is the brother of former Mayor Eugene Sawyer and an uncle to 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer.

“Chicago is now releasing an RFP for housing on city-owned lots as well as a separate RFP for small business development for commercial corridors again on city-owned lots. That’s in direct response to what’s in our CBA. The fact that a majority/minority firm was contracted as well as an oversight officer … The oversight officer is something that we have been emphatically pushing for. That got done. There have been a series of things — traffic studies, the parking lot being moved. There’s a ton of different things that have happened along the way to indicate that they take us seriously,” Malone says.

These good intentions aside, Malone insists negotiating a legally binding agreement is essential.

“One of the cornerstones of business in this country is the idea of a contractual agreement. Attorneys make billions of dollars every year negotiating agreements for small and large corporations,” Malone says. “[And to] make sure that all the people who need to make sure that this thing gets built, do so in a way that legally binds them into doing whatever…they said they were going to do. [Yet] time and time again when it comes to the community people want to say, ‘Just trust us.’ But there is no evidence, none, that business should be transacted based on trust.”

Malone also remains unconvinced by the argument that jobs and training programs generated by the Center will largely negate the displacement issue.

“[The implication is] that because some people will be able to get jobs, that’s going to address the increase in rent. As if everybody who’s going to [suffer] a rent increase is going to work on this project. What about a senior citizen who is renting, who is not going to get a construction job building the Presidential Center?” Malone says. “What about the ex-offender who’s coming home to their family? What job can they count on in that community that’s going to prevent their family from being displaced?”

Strautmanis insists the Foundation remains committed to minimizing displacement in the community as a result of the Obama Presidential Center.

“President and Mrs. Obama talk about the fact that they want to create this project to give back to the community and create a project that people in this community can experience and enjoy. That is not a figurative statement. They are talking about these people who live here today. And so the purpose of the project is to create something for our current neighbors and friends who live here to enjoy and experience,” says Strautmanis.

The Dispute over Jackson Park

The choice of Jackson Park for the Obama Center necessitated a federal review of the planned complex, to evaluate the center’s impact from an environmental and historic-preservation standpoint. (The park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) The Foundation expects a 2019 groundbreaking but does not plan to release a more specific timeline before the completion of the federal review, according to Strautmanis.

Another hurdle is the lawsuit filed in May 2018 by Protect Our Parks. This lawsuit contends that because the Obama Center will be a private entity and not an official presidential library, that the planned 99-year lease transfer of public lands constitutes an “illegal land grab.” (In 2017, in a similar vein, local environmental watchdog organization Friends of the Parks fought successfully against the George Lucas’ Museum of Narrative Art, planned for Chicago’s lakefront. That facility will open in Los Angeles in 2021.)

An aerial view of Jackson Park, looking north from East 67th Street (Photo by Eric Allix Rogers via Flickr)

In February, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey granted a partial dismissal of the case. Specifically, he permanently dismissed the First Amendment claims of one plaintiff who lived outside the city. He also dismissed the First Amendment claims of the additional plaintiffs because, in his view, they were not yet relevant, but stated that they could re-introduce those claims if circumstances changed. The judge also dismissed the plaintiffs’ aesthetic and environmental harm claims. However, the judge found that the individual plaintiffs (as residents of the State of Illinois), as well as Protect Our Parks, did have standing to make a claim against the lease transfer based on an argument of protecting the public trust, and allowed the lawsuit to proceed on those grounds. He scheduled a late-February conference for both sets of parties to meet, along with 45 days of discovery and then a “firm, six-week schedule” to determine the ultimate outcome.

Former alderman and 2019 mayoral candidate Bob Fioretti is acting as an attorney for Protect Our Parks in its legal action against the Center. At a mayoral forum held shortly before the February election, he stated that neither he nor Protect Our Parks was against the Obama Center in principle — they just don’t want parkland to be taken to build it.

However, others don’t find it problematic to build the Center on parkland, according to Seals, who sits on the Board of Friends of the Parks.

“Friends of the Parks is not anti-Obama Center. Our whole thing is around protecting park space. We’re not opposed to this [Center] going into a public space, but you have to be able to provide more space. I’ve heard from some residents, ‘What’s the big deal about it being in a public park? Most of the museums are in public parks. Aren’t these kinds of things in public spaces?’ They’re kind of right,” says Seals.

The Jackson Park dispute also exposes fault lines of race and class among residents of Washington Park, Woodlawn, South Shore and the more affluent Hyde Park. According to a February 2018 story in The Chicago Tribune, many working-class black residents felt put off by the Foundation’s willingness to relocate a parking garage underground after Hyde Park residents protested, all the while categorically refusing to negotiate a CBA.

In a related vein, a current of sentiment also exists among some black residents that opponents of the Center were primarily white people from other parts of the city who appeared concerned about migratory birds, yet indifferent at best to the prospect of economic development in black and brown neighborhoods, according to the article. Seals understands that sentiment.

“I think this is like us [organizations like Friends of the Parks] being seen as folks who are trying to stop this from happening. [The perception is] it’s a bunch of older white hippies. It becomes problematic that people will see us that way. People will see us as detractors based on race,” Seals says.

At present, it seems likely that the challenges associated with the Center will be resolved and that the complex will be built in Chicago as scheduled, avoiding the debacle of the ill-fated Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Unlike Lucas, the Obamas have deep roots in Chicago.

“We’re very aware as the Obama Foundation of the intense need for economic opportunity in this community,” Strautmanis says. “President and Mrs. Obama are excited to do their part by choosing to bring the Obama Center here as opposed to any other place in the world. And that is in part because they know this neighborhood. They know this community.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Two quotes have been clarified for meaning: the quote from Amara Enyia about how identifying parties should not preclude negotiating a CBA; and the final quote from Anton Seals, about community groups like his being perceived as wanting to stop the Center from happening. The story has also been updated to clarify the ruling by U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey.

Audrey F. Henderson is a Chicagoland-based freelance writer and researcher specializing in sustainable development in the built environment, culture and arts related to social policy, socially responsible travel, and personal finance. Her work has been featured in Transitions Abroad webzine and Chicago Architect magazine, along with numerous consumer, professional and trade publications worldwide.