OPC Symposium Stirs Emotions, Crystallizes Concerns

Feature Stories

OPC Symposium Stirs Emotions, Crystallizes Concerns

OPC Symposium Stirs Emotions, Crystallizes Concerns
Mar 09, 2018

On Wednesday, March 7, 2018, a symposium on the potential impact of the Obama Presidential Center, slated to be built in historic Jackson Park on Chicago's South Side, was held at the University of Chicago. The event, organized by the university’s Professor W.J.T. Mitchell, featured a panel of national and local leaders in landscape architecture, community investment, and urban planning. The symposium was spirited, illuminating, and at times manifestly cathartic. The participants presented a broad range of views about park equity, economic development, and the local history of gentrification, and the attendees raised numerous concerns and grievances. 

Changes in West Woodlawn property ownership, 2013-2016, courtesy of Blacks in Green. Map (r.) shows the location of the Chicago neighborhood

There were frequent expressions of hope that the OPC would deliver on its promise to help revitalize South Side neighborhoods, which residents felt have long been neglected, and that the revitalization would not displace the very members of the community it has promised to help. The meeting, full of impassioned pleas and sharp differences of opinion, clearly revealed the frustration that many local residents feel about not being heard: The several community meetings organized by the Obama Foundation thus far were cited as being so tightly controlled and carefully scripted—more like “marketing events and pep rallies,” as one participant put it—that they precluded any meaningful community input. The evening also revealed the sharp divide between those who want an end to protest and debate about the OPC, seeing it as the South Side’s “last best chance,” and those who remain unconvinced about many of the details surrounding the project and want a more open, deliberative process.

Although representatives of the Obama Foundation, Chicago Park District, City of Chicago, and the University of Chicago were invited to take part in the public symposium, none attended.

[Note: Below is a link to the entire symposium; remarks by TCLF's Charles Birnbaum begin at 15:29]. 

“Economic development is a code word for gentrification,” said panelist Jawanza Malone, director of the South Side’s Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. Malone cited statistics about the prices of homes and rents in the Woodlawn neighborhood—already sharply on the rise—and expressed deep concerns that residents would be displaced in the wake of the OPC. He and others also raised accusations about land-banking by the University of Chicago, which, they say, was a practice the university engaged in during the city’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics.

The university was the frequent target of remarks during the event. "This is an all-reward, no-risk situation for them. They have no skin in the game, but now they can develop and make money off the land they own, rather than using some of it for the OPC…we’ve never seen the University of Chicago’s bid for the OPC. What's in it? And we need to know about the university’s landholdings on the South Side. Right now, that information is about as available as President Trump’s tax returns," said TCLF’s Charles Birnbaum, a featured panelist at the symposium.

Another frequent topic of the meeting was the need for a community benefits agreement (CBA). Malone and his organization have spearheaded the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, a collection of organizations calling for a CBA that would set aside jobs for local residents and protect low-income housing in the area. But the Obama Foundation has repeatedly resisted signing a CBA, with its binding obligations. As former president Obama told a crowd assembled at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in September 2017, “…we don’t want to have a situation in which now we’ve got groups fighting with each other, trying to decide who is going to be in charge of saying, ‘This benefits the community,’ or ‘This doesn’t benefit the community.’ I’ve been there. I used to be the organizer insisting on accountability for the community.”

Panelist Naomi Davis, founder of the local organization Blacks in Green, said that many important details about the costs and economic impact of the OPC have not been fully addressed: "If we're gonna take tax dollars, whatever amount it is, we should first of all know— are we aware that the process has a return-on-investment analysis? These are all reasonable questions. Is there parity in the process?"

OPC Symposium, Chicago, IL - Photo by Charles Birnbaum, 2018

Both panelists and attendees raised the issue of the significance of ongoing federal reviews under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, Section 4(f) of the Federal Highway Administration, and the Urban Planning and Recreation Recovery (UPARR) program, observing that plans for the OPC seem to have gotten ahead of the mandated regulatory processes. And while the list of concerns was long and varied, there was clear consensus among the panelists present on three major issues: First, there has been a lack of transparency in the community-engagement process; plans for the OPC materialized, and continue to move forward, in what seems to be an inside deal among the Obama Foundation, the city, and the University of Chicago, without real opportunity for public input. Second, the University of Chicago’s winning bid to host the OPC, which remains secret, should immediately be made public. Third, decisions about the OPC should be informed by a data-driven, holistic planning process; to date, there has not been comprehensive park planning (regarding the golf course, roads, and loss of recreational and natural areas); transportation planning (an analysis of how the OPC will affect local traffic patterns); or community planning (the potential for gentrification and the loss of community culture).

OPC Symposium, Chicago, IL - Photo by Nord Wennerstrom, 2018

The symposium had a profound impact because so much more is at stake than just Jackson Park and its Olmsted-era design legacy. Longtime residents, many of whom are renters, are concerned about being priced out of the area, local businesses could be replaced by chain stores, and there are fears of cultural displacement and the loss of the area’s identity. 

In addition to those people who filled the 286-seat Kent Hall auditorium where the symposium was held, many more watched on CAN TV, Chicago’s local cable access station. One long-time resident wrote TCLF, saying the following:

I totally agree that this is not an either/or turning Jackson Park into that sacrificial lamb. There are plenty of other places nearby that could serve if the University of Chicago would for once look beyond its own fortunes. I'm in my 80s and grew up near Jackson Park and what a beautiful treasure it was. I am sad to think the people who think they must ignore the parks in order to have other benefits—how ever worthwhile—do not see that just as our parks were the gift of previous generations to us, we must continue to hand down that legacy for future generations in as good condition as we are able.  I won't be around a whole lot longer and it would certainly make me happy to be able to leave that legacy.