City Council unanimously approves Obama Presidential Center — for the third time

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Obama Presidential Center rendering. | Obama Foundation

For the third time in four years, the City Council on Wednesday cast a unanimous vote in favor of a $500 million project with the potential to transform the South Side into a major tourist attraction: the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.

Plans to build the four-building complex still face a federal lawsuit and a federal review tied to Jackson Park’s place on the National Register of Historic Places. The lawsuit in particular has the potential to circumvent the project.

But Wednesday’s 48 to 0 vote marked an easy victory, courtesy of the most receptive of audiences.

“We should all take note of what this vote will mean to the city of Chicago,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said after a roll call that took place without debate and out of the regular order of business.

“It’s been a long journey. I got a little older” during the process, he said.

The mayor then read a letter of thanks from former President Barack Obama that said how much he and former first lady Michelle Obama look forward to locating the complex in a “city that has given us so much.”

Aldermen who have twice before signed off on previous iterations of the plan approved a revised master agreement for the center.

It leases 19.3 acres of city land to the Obama Foundation for 99 years for the token price of $10, provided the foundation can raise enough money to build the center and establishes an endowment to cover maintenance and operations.

The city would be on the hook to reimburse the foundation for up to $75,000 for environmental testing of the site.

The ordinance also seeks to protect South Side homeowners who live closest to the Obama Presidential complex without putting those promises into a written community benefits agreement adamantly opposed by the former president.

Instead, City Hall has agreed to keep a close watch on property values and other demographic indicators in the surrounding area.

If there are dramatic changes, Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman pledged again Wednesday to do what’s necessary to prevent longtime residents from being pushed out of their homes. He refused to say what those protective measures might entail and the master agreement doesn’t include specific steps.

“We’re working on various types of programs . . . We are doing things like the [request for proposal] on 63rd Street to make sure we have community value and we’ll use our land as a tool to address issues that may arise in that process,” Reifman said Wednesday.

“A down payment on that commitment is a program that’s going through Council today: building neighborhoods and affordable homes where one of the pilots is Woodlawn. We’re using our resources . . . to focus on building community wealth, helping existing residents and those types of issues that may arise in the process.”

That sort of vague promise leaves longtime residents clamoring for more to preserve the make-up of surrounding neighborhoods and “look out for the little guy,” as community activist Jackie Paige put it.


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In addition to the master lease, aldermen also approved controversial road closures to pave the way for construction of a complex that will include a new branch of the Chicago Public Library, but none of Obama’s official documents.

The traffic plan, confined to Chicago Park District land, includes closing the southern portion of Midway Plaisance Drive as well as Cornell Drive.

That will send southbound traffic from Cornell Drive to Stony Island Avenue, which would be widened, along with the northern portion of Midway Plaisance Drive.

Stoplight and barrier walls would be installed on Hayes Drive.

The city has also made a commitment to use $172 million in state funding to widen Lake Shore Drive between 57th Street and Hayes Drive to accommodate the closing of Cornell Drive.

But that plan must be approved separately because the land is not owned by the Chicago Park District.

The closing of Cornell Drive has been controversial because it’s a main artery through Jackson Park.

Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld argued again Wednesday that the plan to vacate 3.74 acres of city right-of-way, dedicate 1.62 acres of park land as public way and establish a 100-foot wide right-of-way on Stony Island Avenue will “improve circulation within and through the park.”

“There’s a lot of congestion. A lot of traffic safety issues. It is not a perfect system today,” Scheinfeld said.

“The investments we are planning will be a comprehensive improvement for people driving, people on the bus, people walking, biking or using the park for recreational purposes . . . We’ve come up with a set of investments to the whole transportation network . . . that will accommodate capacity diverted from closure of a section of Cornell Drive as well as improve a number of roadway network issues that exist today.”

Scheinfeld was asked why it is necessary to go to the extraordinary expense of widening Lake Shore Drive.

“Adding the lane on Lake Shore Drive is part of the capacity investment we are making to accommodate diverted traffic from that closed section of Cornell,” she said.

“We expect traffic to divert to a combination of Stony and Lake Shore Drive. So we’re adding capacity” to both.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been the Obama Presidential Center’s leading cheerleader.

His lobbying helped secure the $172 million in state funding. His decision to pull the plug on his own re-election bid has added an element of uncertainty to the project because he won’t be around to see it through and clear any political hurdles that might emerge.

But with Wednesday’s City Council vote, aides say the mayor is confident he has done all he can to clear the way for a project that Emanuel firmly believes has historic potential to transform Chicago’s South Side into a major tourist attraction.

Obama Foundation civic engagement chief Michael Strautmanis (left) and Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the board of the Barack Obama Foundation, applaud after the Chicago City Council cast a unanimous vote Wednesday morning in favor of the Obama Presidential

Obama Foundation civic engagement chief Michael Strautmanis (left) and Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the board of the Barack Obama Foundation, applaud after the Chicago City Council cast a unanimous vote Wednesday morning in favor of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“Today really is about the point-person on this: Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) and everybody who got us to this point,” said Michael Strautmanis, vice-president of civic engagement for the Obama Foundation.

The “new model of a presidential library” will digitize paper records that will, instead, be stored at a yet-to-be-determined National Archive and Records Administration facility. The archives and artifacts are currently at northwest suburban Hoffman Estates.

But that has created a legal opening for Protect Our Parks to exploit in its lawsuit seeking to block the land transfer.

Had the Obamas chosen to go the traditional route — with a presidential library managed by the National Archives and Records Administration — the transfer of public park land would have been indisputably legal.

But since the complex would be built on public land by a private entity, the group has argued that it violates state law.

That’s the same legal argument that ultimately killed Emanuel’s proposal to allow movie-mogul George Lucas to build an interactive museum on lakefront land near Soldier Field.

“Last I heard, it was gonna move forward quickly–and that’s a really good thing,” Strautmanis said Wednesday.

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