Chicagoans who care about our city beyond the confines of the Loop constantly demand that City Hall spread the wealth around, and we sure agree.
Downtown shouldn’t be allowed to hog all the goodies — the shiny new office buildings, public art projects, lush streetscapes, fancy parks and corporate headquarters.
Invest in neighborhoods. Stretch your vision. Extend your creative reach beyond the shadow of the Loop.
The Obama Presidential Center would seem to be a perfect example of what we’re all talking about. If you’re looking for large-scale and creative neighborhood development, here it is.
What better way to spread the wealth to the South Side, a part of town suffering from years of disinvestment? What better way to jump-start the struggling neighborhoods around Jackson Park than by building what should be — if all goes right — a cultural gem that draws thousands of tourists every year from around the globe?
Chicago has a chance to make history too, by building the first presidential center in an urban, predominantly African-American community.
So we’re honestly puzzled. What don’t we get? Why, just this week, has a nonprofit group decided at the last minute to throw shade and pretend like maybe this isn’t such a good idea?
A federal lawsuit filed on Monday by a group calling itself Protect Our Parks Inc. makes a lot of ill-conceived and tired arguments against the establishment of the Obama Center. It’s an unfortunate 11th-hour attempt to grind things to a halt. And it comes just days before the Chicago Plan Commission is expected on Thursday to vote on zoning and related matters before a planned groundbreaking later this year.
Surely Protect Our Parks isn’t serious with its “bait-and-switch” claim that construction shouldn’t proceed because the original idea was for an Obama presidential “library” and now it’s an Obama presidential “center.”
Oh, please. Talk about a distinction without a difference.
We should probably point out, as we have before, that President Barack Obama’s official papers have all been digitized and will be accessible online at the Center, though the actual papers will be archived elsewhere.
The lawsuit also raises other equally specious or largely settled issues, such as questioning the transfer of parkland to the Obama Foundation and the token rent the foundation likely will pay. None of this, in our view, comes close to justifying slamming on the brakes.
Protect Our Parks apparently fails to appreciate that there is only limited community opposition to this project, even among grassroots activists who have concerns about the potential for gentrification and displacement of longtime residents as the Center attracts outside development.
Even Friends of the Parks, which is no City Hall lapdog, has not joined the suit, though it would prefer that the Center be built on vacant land adjacent to Washington Park and opposes the closing of Cornell Drive, which runs through Jackson Park.
Frankly, we would have preferred a site in or adjacent to Washington Park too. Building the Center there would have meant less potential for traffic disruption, as well as a boost to a neighborhood that could use it even more than those around Jackson Park. We also think that a legally binding community benefits agreement would have made good sense.
But in supporting the building of the Center — in Jackson Park — nobody is giving City Hall or the Obama Foundation a free pass. Plenty of issues remain unresolved. Plenty of questions remain to be asked.
We’d very much like assurances, for one, that the final taxpayer tab often cited — $175 million — is for real. And history (remember Millennium Park?) tells us it’s probably not.
And we still think nobody has made a sufficient case for merging the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses.
And we’d like to see much more external monitoring of all contracts, given that the center is being built on public land.
Let’s keep the city and the foundation on the hot seat. Let’s get this right, not for the benefit of the mucky-mucks, but for the people of Chicago.
But let’s not pretend anymore that Obama Center is the Lucas Museum. That thing by George Lucas always belonged in La La Land. The Obama Presidential Center will work just fine in Jackson Park.
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