Lightfoot on Obama Center negotiations: Under Rahm, too much ‘whatever you want, you get’

Mayor Lightfoot told the Sun-Times she will be more aggressive than former Mayor Rahm Emanuel was in negotiating final Obama Presidential Center details.

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The proposed Obama Presidential Center museum tower, as seen from Stony Island Avenue.

The proposed Obama Presidential Center museum tower, as seen from Stony Island Avenue.

Rendering courtesy of the Obama Foundation

WASHINGTON — Though Mayor Lori Lightfoot believes the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park will be a “tremendous” asset for Chicago, she is charting a more activist role in addressing concerns of local residents, telling the Chicago Sun-Times ex-Mayor Rahm Emanuel was too eager to please the Obama Foundation.

“I think the city of Chicago in the prior administration, essentially said, ‘Come, whatever you want you get.’ That’s not who I am,” Lightfoot said.

“What I want to do is make sure that we honor the gift that we have been given, which is the Obama Presidential Center” while at the same time address the “mistrust and anxiety” of Jackson Park-area residents. “And I think that’s my responsibility as mayor to make sure we’re doing everything we can to mitigate that.”

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Lightfoot and I talked about the development of the Obama Center and related issues while she was in Washington last week to attend the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. 

She told me she met with former President Barack Obama to discuss the Obama Center for the first time in person during a private meeting Oct. 28 at the Park Hyatt.

Unlike Emanuel, who was Obama’s first chief of staff, Lightfoot is not close to Obama, with the lack of a personal relationship giving her more room to maneuver.

“We are still getting to know each other,” she said. They first met “a million years” ago, she said, crossing paths in the small world of black lawyers in Chicago.

Groundbreaking for the Obama Center has been delayed for years because of the ongoing federal review, needed because Obama decided — and Emanuel agreed — to build in a park listed on the federal National Register of Historic Places in 1972. That triggered the involvement of the Federal Highway Administration, the National Park Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Lightfoot is in basic agreement with the plans for the Obama complex, with four buildings spread over 19.3 acres anchored on the north end of Jackson Park with a looming museum tower to be the signature architectural element.

“Making any kind of material change in the plan at this stage would only delay things,” Lightfoot said. “… let’s get the groundbreaking and let’s go.’”

After attending a community meeting last summer, “what was clear to me from the conversation is that the city of Chicago itself had been relatively on the sidelines and kind of letting the process be played out between the center activists, pro and con, (the) University Chicago and coming out of that discussion, I said to my team, ‘There’s a void here that we have to fill’” about the impact on South Shore and Woodlawn residents.

There is no written agreement obligating the U. of C. to do anything; the school’s bid landed the project for the South Side.

Lightfoot hinted something might be in the works. “We’ve had some very candid and very fruitful conversations with [the Obama Foundation] and with the University of Chicago,” Lightfoot said. Earlier this month, Lightfoot’s administration said it is drafting a plan to preserve affordable housing in Woodlawn.

To be fair to the Obama Center area residents, Lightfoot said, “All of us have to do more. And I think they recognize that we’re not there yet in terms of the particulars.”

An Obama Foundation spokesperson said, “We look forward to working alongside these stakeholders to ensure the community realizes the economic benefits of the Obama Presidential Center.”

It remains to be seen what Lightfoot will produce. Let’s look at two of several outstanding items.

COMMUNITY BENEFITS AGREEMENT: Lightfoot has not said if she will support a community benefits ordinance sponsored by Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) and Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th). Obama is against a CBA, arguing his decision to locate his center on the South Side will spark economic renewal for the area; local residents have a deep fear of rent hikes and a loss of affordable housing.

REPLACEMENT PARKLAND: Since 2014, when the U. of C. led the drive for the Obama Center to be on Chicago’s South Side, the public was told that if Chicago Park District land is used, the end result would be “parks positive.” The various stakeholders have yet to agree on what “parks positive” means.

In a January 2015 news release the university stated that “opportunities for new green space exist along 63rd Street.” That same month in 2015, Emanuel said the replacement land will only be for the space literally taken up by buildings in the 19.3 acre complex. At present, that’s about 2.6. acres.

The project calls for Cornell Drive and other park roadways be converted to green space. The foundation wants credit for the repurposed acres; an argument can be made it’s fuzzy math since the roads are already in the park.

Lightfoot needs to weigh in on this issue. “This is not a topic that’s come up in any discussion that I’ve been in, but I will definitely dig into it,” she told me.

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