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Obama Center approved at heated Plan Commission meeting

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The action-packed hearing featured dueling protests and seven hours of public testimony

Obama Foundation

After twelve months, 56 community meetings, and several design tweaks, the Obama Presidential Center went before the Chicago Plan Commission on Thursday for the project’s first official “yay or nay” vote.

While the commissioners voted overwhelming in support of the transformative South Side development, the volume and passion on display during the lengthy public comment period highlighted how opinions remain steeply divided regarding the “where” and “how” of the project.

The second floor of City Hall reverberated with shouts as protesters, advocates, media and other officials packed city council chambers to capacity. The Obama Presidential Center was the only item listed on the May agenda and the commissioners sat though seven hours of testimony before calling the measure to a vote.

A group protesting the OPC’s lack of a Community Benefits Agreement faces off against supporters of the current plan (blue shirts).
Jay Koziarz

“No CBA, no vote!” chanted a group referencing the Obama’s Foundations refusal to sign a Community Benefits Agreement—a binding document that would guarantee local hiring and protections against displacement such as property tax freeze and increased commitments to affordable housing.

In February, the former president explained the reasoning behind the foundation’s decision to opt out of a formalized CBA, claiming that signing an agreement with one or more community groups inevitably excludes others from the process.

Obama instead asked for trust and promised that his project will create local jobs and support neighborhood businesses. The center could bring an estimated $3.1 billion worth of economic activity to the area.

The foundation’s decision to locate the 19-acre privately-owned facility in the heart of Jackson Park, one of the city’s most historic public green spaces, has also drawn opposition from some community members as well as preservationists.

The project’s organizers hope to address any loss of park space by programming the center as a community hub with new active and passive public uses with walking trails, gardens, a sledding hill, public library, athletic field, and plaza.

The project would also convert Cornell Drive from a major automobile thoroughfare and pedestrian barrier to a pathway more consistent with the slow moving carriageway originally envisioned by legendary landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

Some groups, including Jackson Park Watch, voiced skepticism towards the Obama Foundation’s claim that the land transfer and street closures will create a net gain of park space. Green roofs on buildings and “publicly accessible open space” like the OPC’s hardscape plaza do not equal actual parkland, argued opponents. The land, instead, will be in private hands.

Obama Foundation

The practice of placing a museums on public land is hardly new in Chicago. The Obama Center would become the city’s 15th cultural institution to be located within a public park, according to Patrick Murphey with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development.

However, with the loss of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art still fresh, it is clear that realizing such plan is never guaranteed. “I hope Chicago can avoid another black eye,” read a prepared Plan Commission statement from 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. in reference to Lucas’ decision to pull the plug on his Chicago plans in 2016.

Alderman Leslie Harrison, whose 5th Ward contains the site of the proposed Obama center, concluded her statement of support with reference to the community members protesting the $500 million project. “Some people just don’t know when they have a win,” said the elected official.

With the clock approaching 5:00 p.m., fifteen members of the Chicago Plan Commission took part in the vote. All zoning applications, land transfers, and road closures associated with the plan were approved unanimously.

With the commissioners’ nod, the Obama Presidential Center will move to the Zoning Board next week followed by a final vote by the full Chicago City Council. The city’s vetting process is happening in tandem with a federal historic review due to Jackson Park’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

If all goes to plan, the Obama Presidential Center aims to break ground later this year and open in 2021. It still remains to be seen if a recent lawsuit filed against the project by activist group Protect Our Parks, Inc. will impact the project or its timeline.