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MITCHELL: Obama center’s golf course plan drawing more complaints

Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center in May at the South Shore Cultural Center. | Getty Images

The leadership of the Obama Presidential Center foundation might have miscalculated public sentiment about its plans for Jackson Park.

About 150 people showed up for a community meeting at the South Shore Cultural Center on Thursday. And representatives of the Obama foundation, the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance and the Chicago Department of Transportation got an earful.

Dozens of people lined up to have their say, and most of what was said wasn’t very supportive.

The first African-American president and former South Sider is getting plenty of pushback from community groups, particularly about the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance’s plan to build a PGA-level golf course merging the Jackson Park and South Shore courses, as well as over plans to close Cornell Drive.

“The residents of Chicago are Chicago Park District’s customers, not PGA golfers and tourists,” A. Anne Holcomb told the gathering Thursday. “We are strongly opposed to the PGA golf course expansion plan.”


Community activists also continued to press the foundation for what’s known as a “community benefits agreement” to put in writing the promises being made by the University of Chicago, the city of Chicago, and the Obama Presidential Library and Center Foundation.

“You have talked about great things,” J. Brian Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, said during a question-and-answer session after the presentations. “Why can’t those great things that you talked about essentially be written into a document that becomes legally binding to ensure that all the great things that you say will happen actually happens?”

Jamie Clare Flaherty, director of strategic initiatives for the Obama Library and Center Foundation, told those questioning the plans: “The presidential center is a benefit. The president and first lady are not naïve, right. They are not naïve to the idea of economic development, displacement and gentrification.”

Flaherty added that the foundation is open to having a dialogue with the community.

Even a proposal to put in a sledding hill — apparently at the request of Michelle Obama — was put down by an elderly woman who described herself as a longtime neighborhood resident.

“Are we having sledding in the part of the park that the center was not given? We own the place as much as Michelle,” she said to applause.

Holcomb represents ETHOS, a neighborhood block club of about 50 families who live near the South Shore lakefront. ETHOS was founded in 2014. It stands for environment, transportation, health and open space.

“Many of us supported the library,” Holcomb said. “But we are definitely against the golf course, and we don’t want the nature preserve destroyed.

“If [Obama] wants Jackson Park to be a ‘people’s park,’ then certainly a PGA golf course is not a ‘people’s park,’ ” she told me. “If they have PGA tournaments, they are going to charge admission, and they are going to build a big wall. We don’t want some big wall blocking us off from our lake and separating the haves and the have-nots.”

I spoke Friday with Brian Hogan, co-founder of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, and he said he wasn’t discouraged by the negative comments.

“We welcome the opportunity to meet directly with residents and their group,” Hogan said.

But he also wanted to “put to bed” what he said are a couple of myths about his project.

“There will be no brick wall,” he said. “That has never been discussed. The proposal would increase the total acreage of natural space in South Shore.”

With respect to accessibility, the alliance already has partnered with Excel Academy in South Shore to provide 10 students with complimentary golf equipment and mentors.

“We think this could very much fit within the vision that president Obama has put forth,” Hogan said.

He said what he was hearing Thursday night “was not indicative” of what he’s heard from other groups the alliance has worked with.

“We hope to continue to be collaborative and be very sensitive and reach out to the people who voiced their concerns,” he said.

But this is Chicago.

People on the South Side of the city are used to getting the short end of the stick. And they only have to look at what’s happened in  Bronzeville to suspect that displacement and a land grab are in the works.

“It important to make sure the University of Chicago, the city and the foundation commits to the community in a way that is legally binding, that there won’t be displacement and there will be a long-term benefit,” Malone said. “We aren’t trying to stick anybody up.”

No offense to the Obamas, but a community benefits agreement would go a long way toward ensuring that this historic project doesn’t end up doing more harm than good.