Zoning Committee approves Obama Presidential Center

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The most recent model of the proposed Obama Presidential Center. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The City Council on Wednesday is poised to sign off on a $500 million project with the power to transform the South Side — the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park — despite lingering concerns about displacement and infrastructure costs.

One week after the Chicago Plan Commission approved the project after seven hours of testimony, the Zoning Committee on Tuesday made relatively quick work of the project and the sweeping zoning approvals needed to make way for it.

Tuesday’s vote commits the city to making $175 million in public infrastructure improvements needed to accommodate the center, even though the city has not yet secured those funds.

That includes closing Cornell Drive and Marquette Road, sending southbound traffic from Cornell Drive to Stony Island Avenue, widening Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island and installing stoplights and barrier walls on Hayes Drive.

The Zoning Committee also authorized transferring 19.3 acres from the city to the Chicago Park District; the Obama Foundation will least it in perpetuity for a token $1.

Finally, aldermen approved a planned development for the project’s underlying zoning.

Even after the land transfer and road closures needed to create a campus-like setting for the three-building complex, City Hall and the Obama Foundation maintain there will be a net increase of 4.7 acres of parkland.

They’re counting the conversion of road closures to parkland as well as green roofs on the three new buildings — though those roofs are not open to public all the time.

That didn’t satisfy Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

He supports building the center on the South Side. But, he argued it does not belong in “historic Jackson Park, known the world over” for its Frederick Law Olmsted landscape design that “so beautifully connects” Jackson Park to the Midway Plaisance and Washington Park.

“Make no bones about it. The proposed plans…will backhoe and destroy almost 20 acres of this legacy park land,” Miller said, warning of the dangerous precedent.

“This green, leafy site will now be compromised…with three very large buildings, all on a concrete plaza, and a tall museum building which is over 200 feet tall. … No other presidential library is of this scale and magnitude.”

Although the train is leaving the station, Miller urged Barack and Michelle Obama to consider “another nearby site in the heart of the community” rather than “sort of an extension of the University of Chicago into Jackson Park.”

Ald. David Moore (17th) cast the only “no” vote. Moore said he could not in good conscience commit to spending $175 million on public infrastructure improvements when nobody can say for certain where that money will come from.

“I’m in a community where there are streets that are totally jacked up far worse than what’s around Stony Island, and the administration is saying they don’t have money to do those streets,” Moore said.

“I can’t get $800,000 to go to streets that haven’t been done in 20 years.”

Pressed on where the $175 million will come from, Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld would only say the city is “seeking additional state and federal funds” for the “transformational” project.

“These are state jurisdiction roadways along Stony and Lake Shore Drive. And this is something that’s gonna benefit the whole region,” Scheinfeld said, refusing to discuss a Plan B.

The Cornell Drive closing and $175 million in public improvements are not the only points of contention.

So is the Obama Foundation’s refusal to enter into a community benefits agreement, which would spell out, in writing, exactly what the center will do for the area in terms of transportation infrastructure, affordable housing, jobs and job training.

Michael Strautmanis, vice president of civic engagement for the Obama Foundation, said the foundation is committed to working with community leaders on a “neighborhood stabilization study to prevent displacement.”

Leon Finney, president of the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation, called the Obama Presidential Center “singularly the most important thing” to happen in his 50-year career to revitalize Woodlawn.

“We have 500 acres of vacant land right now in Woodlawn. There is plenty of vacant land to build new homes, mixed-income homes, rental apartments, etc. There’s no need to fear or pander fear about displacement,” Finney said.

“This opportunity has been put in a position to where it has become a divisive issue. And it should be an issue that unites all of us: black, white, Latino, etc. Everybody should be united to stand behind this library.”

Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th) called the 9-to-1 vote a “no brainer” if there ever was one.

“Sometimes, we don’t know how to take a win. And this is a tremendous win,” Solis said.

“Considering who is at the White House today, damn. We should be really proud that we’re getting this here in Chicago.”

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