Our Pledge To You


Obama Center execs pledge contracts transparency; firm on closing Cornell Drive

From left, Obama Foundation Executive Director Robbin Cohen, Obama Center Museum Director Louise Bernard, Obama Foundation CEO David Simas (pointing) and Obama Foundation Vice President of Civic Engagement Michael Strautmanis. They met earlier this year with the Sun-Times Editorial Board to discuss plans for the Center. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

David Simas, the CEO of the Obama Foundation, told the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday a “transparency process” is being developed to track whether Obama Presidential Center contracts and jobs are flowing to minorities, but he was reluctant to pledge – at this time – to installing an independent monitor.

The question of whether an inspector-general-type position is needed to reassure the public that pledges are being kept about the project benefiting minorities was raised during a wide-ranging meeting between Obama Foundation officials and the Sun-Times editorial board.

Former President Barack Obama and his foundation have set high minority contracting goals and will have internal safeguards.

But the public has reason to be skeptical, the best intentions of Obama and his foundation not withstanding. Reporters in Chicago have been writing about sham minority contractors and government efforts to deal with cheating for years.

The Obama Center complex, to be constructed on 19.3 acres in Jackson Park, is to include a forum, a building likely to house a Chicago Public Library branch, an athletic/large group meeting facility and a 235-foot tall tower to contain the Obama museum, the signature building of the campus. Simas estimated the price tag for construction would range from $300 million to $350 million.

CONTEXT: The edit board session took place while the foundation tries to drum up public support as it seeks crucial approvals for the project from City Hall and the federal government.

The foundation filed its application for needed approvals last Wednesday. The city and federal reviews will take place concurrently.

IS THE CLOSING OF CORNELL NEGOTIABLE? Digging up Cornell Drive, a main artery through Jackson Park, was never mentioned when President Barack Obama announced Jackson Park as the site for his center in August 2016.

But it turns out the controversial proposal was lurking in the background from the start. Robbin Cohen, executive director of the foundation, told the Sun-Times, the suggestion to close Cornell was in “the original proposal from the University of Chicago.”

The University of Chicago bid to put the Obama Center on Chicago’s South Side has never been made public.

The foundation wants to transform Cornell, now a six-lane roadway, into a pedestrian and bike path – a greenway connecting the Obama campus with the Museum of Science and Industry and eastward to Lake Michigan.

Closing Cornell has sparked community outcry.

Is this negotiable?

“I don’t want to get into what’s negotiable and what’s not negotiable,” Simas said. “We have filed our plan. We believe this is the best approach.”

One of the architects, Billie Tsien, told the edit board: “We wanted to close Cornell Drive. It seemed to us a quite obvious proposal because it was really about uniting the park.”

ENFORCMENT OF CONTRACTING PLEDGES: From the start, a goal of Obama has been to use his center to provide jobs and contracts to the surrounding community. Four south and west side Chicago minority-owned firms will control 51 percent of the construction management business.

Michael Strautmanis, the foundation’s vice president of civic engagement, said the foundation will not let the former president down.

“I want someone accountable to President Obama supervising this process, because I believe he has the highest standards for minority participation,” Strautmanis said.

Bottom line: “We will develop a transparency process, “ Simas pledged to the board.

CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY BRANCH: The Obama Center will not contain the archives of Obama’s two terms and will not be part of the official federal presidential library system.

Terms for a proposed Chicago Public Library branch are still under discussion. Obama is paying for the building – but it’s not clear yet if the city will have to pay rent for the space.

“It may not be free,” Cohen said.

CUTTING DOWN JACKSON PARK TREES: Orange dots have appeared on trees in Jackson Park, suggesting that the 300 trees to be cut down are in the process of being chosen.

Simas pledged until the foundation has the permits, “there will be no trees removed or cut down.”

MUSEUM LOOKING FORWARD: The tower “is not a monument to President Obama and his legacy,” said museum director Louise Bernard.

Said Bernard: “It is a monument to the possibility (about) acts of change that all people can bring about. So we want to insure that the exhibitions, the permanent exhibitions itself, never feels kind of dusty and stale, that there is always something energizing about it, that it is able to tap into the present and the future.”