Plan Commission passes Obama Center plans

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Crowds protest outside a planning commission meeting for the Obama Presidential Center at City Hall demanding a Community Benefit Agreement, Thursday, May 17th, 2018. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

After hours of public testimony both for and against the plans for the Obama Presidential Center, the Chicago Plan Commission approved the proposals Thursday, allowing the contentious deal to move forward to the city’s Zoning Committee next week.

The six proposals that came before the board focused on modifying boundaries, closing roads and approving the lease of the building.

All were passed unanimously after nearly seven hours of testimony for the meeting, which drew over 150 people.

All present members of the Plan Commission except for Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld and Chicago Park District Supt. Michael Kelly voted for the plans. The two members recused themselves in the votes because they are involved in the center’s application process.

The commission’s decision means the plans can be presented to the Zoning Committee on Tuesday and then possibly to the full City Council the next day – despite ongoing federal review processes, which could take months to complete.

In a statement, David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation said foundation members were “heartened” by the “outpouring of enthusiasm.”

“We are pleased with the vote and look forward to continuing to work with our neighbors, the City Council and the Chicago community more broadly to make the vision and mission of the OPC into reality,” he said.

Among the crowd were demonstrators demanding a written community benefits agreement and those wearing Obama Presidential Center shirts and buttons in support of the center.

“I’ve lived on the South Side all but about eight months of my life and I’ve seen change — social, political and economic change,” 99-year-old activist Timuel Black said. “I encourage the bringing of the library to Chicago, to the South Side. My concern is who will it be accessible to and who will it benefit?”

Ghian Foreman, executive director of the Greater Southwest Development Center, said he believes the center will enhance the park.

“Our communities have faced years of disinvestment, many opportunities, such as the Olympics…and the community ended up with nothing,” Foreman said. “I do not think the right approach is to blame the opportunity, but instead prepare for the opportunity and use this as a springboard for future opportunities.”

Some elected officials were puzzled by the opposition to what they see as an asset for the city.

“Some people just don’t know when they’ve got a win,” said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), whose ward includes the site.

Hairston argued that “there are no groups today that oppose the center,” and decried the “professional protesters” who had shown up.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) had concerns about how the center will affect housing and neighborhood stability. Commissioner Fran Grossman questioned how the center would be paid for.

Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, called the approval of the center “disappointing.”

“I’m not surprised, but it’s unfortunate that this is what our so-called democracy has become,” Malone said. “It doesn’t stop what we’re doing.”

Margaret Schmid, of Jackson Park Watch, was also disappointed.

“Serious questions of public policy were not addressed,” Schmid said. “This was certainly not an example of Chicago at its best.”

The Obama Presidential Center concept model, as seen from above and the northwest. | Obama Presidential Center

The Obama Presidential Center concept model, as seen from above and the northwest. | Obama Presidential Center

Michael Strautmanis, the foundation’s vice president of civic engagement, said the plans have been strengthened and refined by community input. He submitted 406 personal letters and almost 4,000 postcards in support of the center into the record.

Around 19.3 acres of Chicago Park District land would be transferred to the city for the site of the center in Jackson Park.

The Plan Commission and the City Council approved the boundaries of the land transfer once already in 2015. Since then, the design of the center has changed, and its boundaries have shifted to the north and east, meaning the plan commission had to approve it again.

The commission also OK’d a resolution that authorizes a long-term ground lease for the site. Terms of the lease between the city and Obama Foundation have not been released, but it is likely only a token amount of rent to be charged.

Obama Foundation officials said they expect the project to have an economic impact of $3.1 billion during construction and its first 10 years — and that $2.1 billion of that would go directly to the South Side.

This is the latest site plan for the Obama Presidential Center. | Obama Foundation

This is the latest site plan for the Obama Presidential Center. | Obama Foundation

Still in the plan is “closing certain public rights-of way” — a reference to a proposal to close Cornell Drive, a main Jackson Park thoroughfare. That aspect of the plan has drawn community opposition.

Also still contentious is the refusal of the center to enter into a community benefits agreement, which would spell out exactly what the center will do for the area in terms of transportation infrastructure, affordable housing, jobs and job training.

And then there’s a federal lawsuit filed Monday by Protect Our Parks, Inc. The lawsuit seeks a court order to “bar the Park District and the City from approving the building of the Presidential Center and from conveying any interest in or control of the Jackson Park site to the Foundation.”

Contributing: Lynn Sweet

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