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Obama Presidential Center Symposium shows residents frustrated with each other, institutions

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Some residents want a community benefits agreement, others worry the loud demands will jeopardize the center

Just a week after the final, large-scale public meeting on the Presidential Center, a symposium was held at the University of Chicago on Wednesday night with the intention of allowing space for an open public dialogue.

Tom Mitchell, a professor at University of Chicago, organized the event which city officials and the Obama Foundation declined to attend. Unlike the “glossy marketing” meetings and “pep rallies” the Obama Foundation has hosted, he said, the purpose of the evening was to give a platform to those in the community. The conversation that followed was passionate, and put the concerns of residents who fear losing their neighborhood at the forefront.

The panel, which offered remarks before opening the floor to the attendees, included moderator Barbara Ransby, director of University of Illinois at Chicago’s Social Justice Initiative; Naomi Davis, attorney and founder of Blacks in Green; Charles Birnbaum, founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation; and Jawanza Brian Malone, director of Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

One thing almost every speaker brought up was the need for a community benefits agreement. The argument for an agreement like this with the Obama Foundation is that it would set a precedent for any other large organization that wants to come into the South Side. It would also provide security for residents who don’t trust the city or the University of Chicago to be proactive about gentrification issues.

“Economic development is a code word for gentrification,” said Malone. He and other residents say they’re already seeing home prices go up as a result of the center’s announcement.

Malone referred to a statistic that most likely came from this Redfin study where off-market home value data was analyzed in cities across the United States. Woodlawn was ranked third with a 23.3 percent growth when off-market home values were compared to that of its metro area. The average home sale price in Woodlawn now is about $159,000. For context in 2008 those prices averaged around $200,000 and in 2013 reached about $125,000.

“All eyes are now on Woodlawn. When the mayor was asked about this—I’ll wait for the boos and hisses—he said that it was a sign of good things to come. The question that came to my mind was, good things for who?” Malone said.

Much of the distrust comes from the lack of information from the city and the University of Chicago. One reason Malone and other residents are cautious is the possibility land banking, which some accused the university of doing during the city’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.

When the floor was opened for comments and questions from the audience, it revealed the tension that had been building during the first half the event. Liz Moyer, a professor at University of Chicago, got up to say that she felt deeply uncomfortable with how critical the conversation had turned.

“This center isn’t here to benefit a bunch of rich, white Hyde Parkers or faculty members of the university. We are not the people who should be making decisions. We weren’t consulted because we’re not relevant.” said Moyer. She said there have been many community discussions over years with the people that matter and that they are fully supportive. She worried that with all the arguing, nitpicking and “displeased white people complaining,” that it would put the center, and all its programs for the community, in jeopardy.

One of the last people to offer up their opinion was Perri Irmer, an attorney, architect and President of Dusable Museum, who was also worried Obama would get fed up and leave.

Her frustration with all that had been said was clear, particularly by Charles Birnbaum who had been advocating to save Jackson Park’s pristine landscape design by Olmsted from becoming adultered by the Presidential Center.

“Mr. Birnbaum you have a great level of audacity,” she said. “Our families are sacred. our communities are sacred. Our parks are not sacred. Unless you are channeling Olmsted at a seance you don’t know what he wants for this community now,” Irmer said.

This center is the last, best chance the South Side has and that residents should be aware of that, she said. She addressed the defense often used by critics of the development—that they aren’t against Obama or the foundation, but that they just want more transparency and a community benefits agreement.

“Well what happens to his legacy if we run this project out of the South Side like Friends of the Parks ran the Lucas Museum out? Along with 600 million dollars a year in income to this city. How many jobs would that have created in Bronzeville and elsewhere?” Irmer said.

“So if we want to talk about what University of Chicago has done with social engineering through real estate, sure. But to saddle that to a development from our president? Who we trusted by the way to lead us in the free world, not once but twice. And you’re saying you’re not going to trust he and Michelle to deliver for their own communities? I find that just incredible.”

The center isn’t going to be a cure all for the South Side, she added. Just like his presidency wasn’t cure all for every problem in America.

Obama has made it clear that he’s not interested in a community benefits agreement because it isn’t possible to have one organization could adequately represent the concerns of every resident. And, eager to get break ground, it would undoubtedly drag the project out by months or years. In his final rally for support last week, Obama asked for the community’s trust.

Obama can’t make everyone happy, but he made it clear that at one point or another, the foundation would get going. The project is now seeking approval from the city’s Plan Commission.