Demanding a Community Benefits Agreement from the Obama Library

 /  Jan. 18, 2017, 7:31 p.m.


On a sweltering day last August, the Obama Foundation held a news conference outside the Museum of Science and Industry to celebrate bringing the Obama Presidential Library to Jackson Park, along the South Side of Chicago’s lakefront. All the big names spoke: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, and Obama Foundation Chairman Marty Nesbitt. With the park’s picturesque lagoon as a backdrop, they all asserted that the Obama Library would be a game-changer for the South Side.

Indeed, economic estimates portend enormous change for the communities surrounding the future library. In August of 2013, the University of Chicago hired the Anderson Economic Group to study the potential economic impact of the Obama Library on the South Side. The numbers from its report are striking. Construction of the library itself is estimated to cost around $600 million, and could result in the creation of an estimated 1,900 permanent jobs. Surrounding neighborhoods could see $30 million in new food and retail development, which the report says could translate into as many as thirty restaurants, eleven stores, and a hotel. Emanuel has declared that “the Obama Presidential Center will bring tremendous cultural, economic, and educational benefits not just to Jackson Park, but to Washington Park, Woodlawn, and the entire city of Chicago for generations to come.”

While such a statement may sound promising, a basic question still needs to be asked: can the City and the University of Chicago really be trusted to act in the best interest of the residents surrounding the library?

History provides us with a resounding answer: no. An examination of the past development policies pushed by the University and the City reveals systematic discrimination against African-American residents and businesses of the South Side, which has often led to their displacement. Though this article lacks the space to give a comprehensive account of these injustices, it will present an overview in the hopes of conveying the magnitude of the destruction wreaked by University and City policies on people of color, and outline a proposal for how this time could be different.


In the 1930s and 1940s, the University of Chicago subsidized associations of Hyde Park and Woodlawn property owners that used racially restrictive covenants to prevent African Americans from moving into their neighborhoods. These covenants were explicitly discriminatory: when a white property owner sold to another property owner, a clause would be included in the contract that prevented the new owner from selling that property to African Americans in the future. In spite of this blatant discrimination, however, racially restrictive covenants were legal until 1949, when the US Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional in Shelley v. Kraemer. Between 1937 and 1947, as court battles over these covenants began to arise, the University provided property owners’ associations $83,597.46 in legal funds to defend restrictive covenants in an effort to keep Hyde Park and Woodlawn homogeneously white.

Chicago historian Arnold Hirsch tells the story of the University’s defense fund for covenants in Making the Second Ghetto, his history of race and housing in mid-twentieth-century Chicago. The book adds that in the 1950s and ’60s, an “urban renewal” plan developed by the University-backed South East Chicago Commission (and approved by city departments) led to the demolition of vast swaths of Hyde Park and the displacement of more than four thousand families. The racial disparities in this displacement were stark. During the first phase of urban renewal, 46 percent of the white families and 49 percent of the white individuals uprooted by the demolitions were relocated within Hyde Park or Kenwood; only 17 percent of the black families and 14 percent of the black individuals found similar accommodations.

Finally, in the 1980s and ’90s, the city tore down the Green Line tracks above Sixty-Third Street, causing many of the African-American businesses located in the area to close their doors due to a resulting decrease in foot traffic and a smaller customer base. In 1996, Joseph Boyle Jr., the city’s commissioner of planning and development, argued that tearing down the Green Line would “allow Sixty-Third Street to become a focal point for community activity rather than a barrier.” This policy that the city claimed would bring so many benefits ended up doing the opposite: the African-American community around Sixty-Third Street lost what remained of its commercial center. The same fear of broken promises looms large with the Obama Library.


Given this history, today neighborhood residents and leaders are questioning whether city officials and University administrators should again be allowed to define what is beneficial to their communities. An additional concern has arisen out of the University of Chicago’s refusal to release the full economic report produced by the Anderson Group, making it impossible to know whether the report cautioned against any negative effects the library might produce, including the possible displacement of low-income residents. But what is the alternative to elites making far-reaching decisions behind closed doors? Perhaps having the residents themselves decide what benefits the Obama Library should bring. That was the conviction that drove a coalition of community groups to organize a series of town hall meetings, attended by over five hundred residents, this past summer. At these meetings, residents discussed for themselves what they believed their communities really need. They formed committees to tackle issues related to employment, economic development, education, housing, transportation, and sustainability.

These town hall meetings added a dimension ignored in the rosy numbers of the economic-impact study. Residents were talking about not only about the quantity of development the library would bring, but the quality of development for those already around the library site. For instance, the project might add new jobs, but would those jobs guarantee a living wage? New housing might be built, but would that housing be affordable? What if current residents were pushed out of their apartments because landlords increased rents in the hopes of making room for higher-paying tenants? Such basic concerns have sparked the campaign for a community benefits agreement (CBA).

A community benefits agreement is a legally binding contract negotiated between the developer of a project and surrounding community organizations. It ensures that the developer includes in its project certain benefits considered essential by neighborhood residents, like dignified work and quality affordable housing. In the negotiation of a CBA, community organizations are treated as legitimate partners rather than groups to be appeased.

The CBA “development principles” proposed by the Obama Library South Side CBA Coalition contain demands that stem directly from residents’ concernsfundamentally, their desire for a more equitable society. Among other things, it states that a majority of jobs created should go to residents of communities surrounding the library and that all jobs should pay at least a living wage. It states that a black business corridor should be developed to provide opportunities for African-American entrepreneurship. It states that the library should offer its programming free to Chicago Public Schools students. It states that there should be a significant amount of low-income housing set aside with any new housing developed around the library. All of these demands would enhance the quality of life on the South Side and make the Obama Library a responsible community institution.

Beyond the history already mentioned, there are some very immediate reasons for a CBA. The Obama Library will occupy public parkland, taking up green space that many South Siders have long used for everything from leisure to athletics. The CBA Coalition argues that if the public is to provide resources to the Obama Library, then the public has a right to receive benefits in return. But the coalition also points out that the CBA campaign is about more than just receiving benefits. They argue that neighborhood residents deserve a direct role in the decision-making process given the huge effect the development of the Obama Library will have on their lives. Devondrick Jeffers, an organizer for the CBA Coalition, said that “the CBA will give community residents a seat at the table for shaping and developing their community, which will allow them to impact factors directly affecting people’s quality of life.” In this way, the CBA process becomes even more than a tool to secure much-needed benefits; it’s also a means of democratizing economic development and giving people control over their own futures.

The CBA process is hardly an untested idea. Numerous coalitions in cities across the country have fought for CBAs and won. Take the example of the “Staples CBA” in Los Angeles: in 2000, developers proposed the LA Sports and Entertainment District, a sprawling complex near the downtown area that would include a hotel, a theater, restaurants, retail, and apartment buildings. This development was also set to receive as much as $150 million in public subsidies, prompting labor, environmental, and community organizations to rally together so that those taxpayer dollars would actually bring benefits to neighborhood residents. They eventually closed one of the most comprehensive CBAs in the nation. After extensive negotiations, the developers agreed to spend more than $1 million improving or creating new parks in the area, establish a jobs training program for area residents, guarantee 20 percent of new housing as affordable, and make 70 percent of the jobs created pay a living wage.

The “Staples CBA” proved that CBAs are not anti-development. John Goldstein, a nationally recognized CBA expert who has worked on dozens of campaigns, put it simply: “A CBA has never prevented a development from moving forward.” Rather, CBAs and the campaigns behind them make sure new developments empower rather than displace historically marginalized communities. This is the promise of the Obama Library CBA campaign: not to prevent development, but to make it more just.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Rob Hayes


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