The Obama Presidential Center: As Divisive as its Namesake’s Legacy

 /  Nov. 20, 2020, 11:23 a.m.

obama center cba

Originally planned to open by 2021, the Barack Obama Presidential Center seems to be stuck in limbo with no ground-breaking date in sight. Plagued by scandal since its inception, a Federal review process was initiated in 2017 after growing local criticism. Many Hyde Park residents have voiced concerns over the potential for increased property taxes as the construction draws in more expensive infrastructure—a particularly contentious topic due to the history of accusations directed at the University of Chicago regarding the gentrification of Hyde Park and surrounding areas. Other criticisms have targeted the proposed construction in one of Chicago’s parks, the financial costs required of the city to adjust local transit routes to accommodate the facility, and the overall lack of transparency in funding. 

Promising Change

The idea for a facility to commemorate President Barack Obama’s legacy began in 2014 with the formation of the Obama Foundation, the non-profit driving the construction of the Barack Obama Presidential Center. After narrowing down the potential construction location to four areas, it was announced in 2015 that the Obama Foundation had entered into agreements with the University of Chicago to begin construction at a site in Jackson Park. The initial plans for the facility, which would be the physical counterpart to the first ever fully digital presidential library, included combining the South Shore and Jackson Park golf courses into a single luxury course, closing off Cornell Drive and other streets in order to improve access to the parks and other green spaces around the Museum Campus area, and adding a restaurant, an auditorium, and other business facilities.

Advocates for the facility—including the Chicago City Council, the Obama Foundation, and some local South Side supporters—argue that the projected plan will decrease traffic congestion, increase accessibility to and make major renovations to local green spaces, and provide a valuable educational facility open to the public. They also argue that the state-of-the-art facility will be a much-needed stimulus to the economy that would increase infrastructure spending, provide jobs to South Side residents, and help ease some of the economic disparities between the South Side and other areas of the city.

Fears of Gentrification and Displacement

Initial complaints arose from the proposed construction site in Jackson Park. Although The Obama Foundation argued that the plan would enhance the park’s accessibility, the city of Chicago has a turbulent history with building in its park system. Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, the initial plan for rebuilding Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire, included keeping the lakefront and the city’s numerous parks completely free and open to the public. This controversy came to a head in 2018 when Protect Our Parks, a Chicago park advocacy organization, filed a lawsuit to prevent the privatization of the park. Although the case was ruled in favor of the city, construction remains halted after the Chicago Department of Planning and Development released a report stating that the construction would have adverse effects on park spaces, the intended significance of the Museum of Science and Industry, and the overall historic qualities of Jackson Park and Midway Plaisance that qualify it for inclusion on the National Register. These potential consequences have spurred further condemnation from some of the facility’s more outspoken critics. Herb Caplan, president of Protect Our Parks, declared it “illegal from the start” and a “denial of public trust doctrine,” in response to the proposal allowing the Obama Foundation to privately own the land for 99 years at the cost of only ten dollars.

Another main concern is the potential for further gentrification of the surrounding South Side neighborhoods. Gentrification of the Hyde Park area by the University of Chicago through land-buying and the influx of wealthy students has been a source of tension for decades. Critics argue that the facility will only accelerate and spread this gentrification, raising already high property taxes and displacing longtime residents. Protests occurred after property taxes began rising in the proposed construction location, leading to the formation of the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) Coalition. The Coalition seeks guarantees for rent control, right of first refusal for apartment building sales, support for Black-owned businesses, and mandatory hiring from the local community. After the Obama Foundation refused to consider their proposals, Alderman Leslie Hairston—a 20 year incumbent for the 5th ward, which includes Hyde Park and Woodlawn—faced stiff criticism from her opponent in the 2019 election, William Calloway, for favoring the Obama Foundation and not showing adequate support for the local community that faces being displaced by the rising property taxes. Alderman Hairston ultimately prevailed in that election by just 176 votes.

Other criticisms have focused on the financial burden the facility would place on the city. Initially planned to be paid for by the Obama Foundation, it was later reported that critical infrastructure renovations necessary to reroute traffic would be shouldered by the city of Chicago, with a cost estimate of $175 million. Already faced with the potential for increased cost of living, many residents saw this as another possible tax hike. With people wary of unnecessary spending, the coronavirus pandemic has further strengthened the sentiment that this money could be used to shore up some of the city’s more pressing financial concerns.

An Uncertain Future

Advocates of the project argue that any expenditures would be more than offset by the inflow of new jobs, and that infrastructure spending is needed. An economic impact analysis commissioned by the Chicago City Trust in 2018 estimated that approximately 1,000 short-term construction jobs and 2,000 long-term jobs would be created for South Side residents, generating an estimated $104 million in annual income. Along with this, The Woodlawn Housing Ordinance was passed in 2020 with unanimous consent from the City Council. This ordinance gives tenants in the Woodlawn neighborhood the right of refusal if a landlord seeks to sell his or her building, meaning that instead of being automatically displaced, tenants could form a tenants’ association and “enter into an agreement with a not-for-profit affordable housing developer to purchase the building and maintain it as affordable.” It also requires 30 percent of all buildings on 52 acres of city-owned land to be reserved for low-income earners, and sets aside $1.5 million for multi-family buildings to refinance over a 30-year term in exchange for affordable housing for low and middle-income earners as part of the city’s “Preservation of Existing Affordable Renters” (PEAR) program. While short of the full request by the CBA Coalition, the compromise was hailed by Aldermen Hairston and Ward 5 Alderman Jeanette B. Taylor as a step in the right direction. Aldermen Hairston and Taylor are presently negotiating with the city to implement tax reform, job-training programs, and amend the ordinance to encompass the South Shore area as well.

Outside of the potential economic benefits, supporters point to the intangible effects that this facility will have on the local community. The Woodlawn community is approximately 79 percent Black, and some argue that the job training, transportation, local business support, and free access to educational material will help shrink the economic disparity between the Woodlawn community and richer, whiter areas of the city. The proposed construction also spurred an investment of $40 million into the Hyde Park Academy High School, a predominantly Black institution. The idea of a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to the first African American President of the United States that provides aid and education to a historically disenfranchised community is seen as priceless to many.

What began as a grand vision in 2014 seemed for many years to be in danger of becoming another discarded plan in Chicago’s long history of wishful thinking. Although advocates argue that the economic boom will more than pay for any upfront costs, the slow pace of construction, uncertain impact on the community, and overall opaque nature of the project have tempered the enthusiasm of the South Side community. With Chicago facing a $1.2 billion dollar deficit, a number that is only increasing as the coronavirus pandemic drags on, members of the local community question whether this is the appropriate time to be building a presidential monument, regardless of the benefits. As another deadline comes and goes with the passing of 2020, the Obama Foundation remains adamant that the project will continue, and its prospects have improved since the passing of the 2020 ordinance. The question remains, however, whether the center will push forward with its plan, believing it knows what is best for the community, if it will listen to the locals and make concessions, or if it will fall apart completely. 

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Charles Edward Miller and can be found here.

Eric Snyder


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