SWEET: Obama Foundation’s first big public outreach meeting next week

SHARE SWEET: Obama Foundation’s first big public outreach meeting next week

Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be built in nearby Jackson Park, during a gathering at the South Shore Cultural Center on May 3, 2017 in Chicago. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — With controversies brewing over the Obama Presidential Center development, for the first time, a team from the Obama Foundation will discuss pending program and design plans at an event open to the public.

The meeting next Thursday will take place at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place — a location selected to make it easier for South Siders to attend — with doors opening at 5 p.m. and the program starting at 5:45 p.m.

The session will be the Chicago public debut of Obama museum director Louise Bernard, who is figuring out the exhibits in the museum to be dedicated to the Obama presidency — that is, she is pulling together the narrative of the Obama “story” — and how the museum will fit into the overall center complex to be built in Jackson Park.

Bernard’s work is crucial at this early stage because architects need to understand the concepts behind the museum — the physical needs of major permanent exhibits — in order to design the structure. For example, will there be a recreation of the Obama Oval Office? The model former President Barack Obama unveiled to the public last May showed a blank-walled museum tower anchoring the complex.


The foundation officials at the meeting next Thursday will include Michael Strautmanis, vice president of civic engagement; Bernard; Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, lead architects for the center; and Michael Van Valkenburgh, lead landscape designer for the center.

This meeting represents the most significant large public outreach yet for the foundation.

From the foundation’s perspective, there have been constant meetings with stakeholders on economic development, traffic planning and activities of the future center.

Since most of those meetings have been private, the foundation has developed an unfortunate reputation for keeping a close hold on information about its plans and programs.

The foundation has been trying of late. Strautmanis, the main foundation face in Chicago, stood for hours listening to all comers over two days last month at an open house at the South Shore Cultural Center.

So as the pace of foundation activity is picking up, the meeting makes sense, especially with simmering controversies involving the design of the center complex such as:

• The Foundation wants to build a garage on city land across from the future center on a patch of Midway Plaisance bounded by 60th, 59th, Stony Island and the Metra tracks. The foundation is trying to market the grassy roof of the garage and its sloping side hills as a park because the foundation has pledged that it will give back to the Chicago Park District the acres of Jackson Park it is taking for the center, about 20 acres at present. It’s not clear yet if anyone will see a pleasant venue on a roof as the same as a public park.

• Road closures, especially on Cornell and Marquette Drives as the streets runs through portions of Jackson Park and the widening of a portion of Lake Shore Drive remains a sizzling community issue.

I was told the Obama Foundation paid for the Chicago Department of Transportation traffic studies, justifying the street closures. The closure of Cornell seems a foregone political conclusion to me. There is still a question: Should those Cornell acres count as the foundation park give back contribution?

• The case has yet to be made for the proposed combination of the South Shore and Jackson Park golf courses into one championship course. I have been told this would not be going forward without some kind of blessing from Obama.

• The foundation, trying to deflect demands for community benefits agreements, has yet to offer a written policy of how it will be policing the demands it is making of firms and consultants to prove they are hiring minorities. I am told one is coming where the firms will be signing legally binding contracts with specific metrics of accountability.

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