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A rare election-night loss for Obama: Voters back benefits pact for presidential center

Kyana Butler, member of the Obama CBA Coalition, chained herself to a fence to prevent traffic from passing through South Woodlawn Avenue to protest the lack of a community benefits agreement that safeguards residents living near the site of the Obama Presidential Center from rising rents and property taxes. | Carlos Ballesteros

Voters in parts of two South Side wards heavily supported a community benefits agreement for the Obama Presidential Center in Tuesday’s election, potentially reigniting debate on the issue as the city gears up for the April 2 runoff elections.

Although former President Barack Obama has repeatedly opposed such a pact with the community, the non-binding measure backed by voters called for such an agreement, along with a 30 percent set aside for affordable housing, a property tax freeze and funding for local jobs and affordable housing for the area surrounding the center.

Just under 9 out of 10 voters who casts ballots in four precincts in the 5th and 20th wards backed the measure.

Those precincts were chosen because they offer a sampling of voters from Jackson Park, Woodlawn and Washington Park, organizers said.
Kyana Butler, a 23-year resident of Woodlawn, led 15 volunteers with Southside Together Organizing for Power in knocking on doors, manning a phone bank and other community outreach to inform residents and shore up support for the measure. She says groups started working on getting the question on the ballot early last year.

“The results are a clear sign that a CBA is needed in this community for the Obama” presidential center as well as hotels and University of Chicago dorm rooms, Butler said. “Developers coming into the community need to show on paper how they’re going to commit” to the community.

In addition to Obama, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) also hasn’t backed an agreement.

But her opponent in the April runoff, activist Will Calloway, does support it.

And community organizer Jeanette Taylor and teacher Nicole Johnson, who will face off next month to replace 20th Ward Ald. Willie Cochran, also support an agreement.

Mayoral contenders Toni Preckwinkle, the current Cook County board president, and former head Chicago Police Board head Lori Lightfoot have both said they back a community benefits agreement, putting them at odds with the former commander in chief. Preckwinkle said Friday that a deal could be cut with community groups that may not involve the Obama Foundation.

“We need to make sure that when our city invests in major developments, that the benefits of the growth and expansion go back into our communities,” Preckwinkle said in a statement. “For too long, that has not happened here in Chicago but as mayor, I will make sure that all of our city’s communities are heard and involved in future major developments in Chicago.”

Lightfoot’s spokeswoman said in a recent questionnaire the candidate said she “will work to help resolve outstanding issues in a way that is respectful of community needs as articulated by residents. I am concerned about the Obama Foundation’s reticence to sign a community benefits agreement, especially for a project that is receiving more than $100 million in public funds.”

A spokeswoman for the Obama Foundation said “we share a deep belief in the strength of the South Side and the need to bring opportunity to a community that has been overlooked and underinvested.”

“The Obama Foundation looks forward to working with the next mayor, whoever that may be, on efforts related to housing, education, and other issues we agree are vital to the revitalization of this community,” a statement from the spokeswoman read. “In the meantime we are working toward fulfilling our written commitments to ensure the OPC provides our neighbors jobs, spaces for our children to learn and play, and an opportunity to draw people from all over the world to the South Side.”

The vote Tuesday follows U.S. District Judge John Blakey’s decision to allow a lawsuit filed by advocacy group Protect Our Parks to continue.

In a 21-page opinion released last month, Blakey said that the suit opposing plans for the center to be built on 19.3 acres of land in Jackson Park could proceed and that the plaintiffs who brought it generally had legal standing. City Hall, which approved the blueprint last October, and the Chicago Park District were named as defendants.

Despite a political tide potentially rising for a benefits agreement, Butler doesn’t see the results as a setback for Obama since community members want the center.

“Obama hasn’t lost anything,” Butler said. “This is a gain for the community and this is what the community needs. We support the Obamas — the results show people support these things, too.”