Obama,” by Muhammad Ghafari

May 15, 2018; Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times

The desire to use a popular “native son” former president to drive economic development in his home town is enmeshed in a struggle over who will decide how its impact is controlled.

The Obama Foundation’s plans to build a presidential center hit another snag last week when Protect Our Parks (POP), Inc., which is dedicated to protecting Chicago’s parks, went to court to block the transfer of public lands to the Obama Foundation. While the new challenge focuses on who owns public lands, the underlying issue remains who will benefit from building this facility in an economically challenged community.

The immediate focus of the suit are the purpose of public lands and the legality of plans that call for the Chicago Park District to sell part of Jackson Park to the city of Chicago so that the city can lease the land to the Obama Foundation. When the project was first proposed, it was thought that this facility would be the official repository for President Obama’s papers. The actual repository is now not planned to be located in Chicago and that, according to POP, Inc., prohibits the Park District and the City from providing the land to the privately-run Obama Foundation.

In its suit, Protect Our Parks, Inc. alleged, according to the Chicago Tribune, that “the City and Park District clearly realize and fully understand that this established law precludes the Park District from arbitrarily transferring possession, use and control of this dedicated ‘open, clear and free’ public parkland in Jackson Park to a private nongovernmental…entity’s self-determined use.”

In responding to this suit, the city of Chicago, in a statement it issued, framed the issue as one of economic development rather than protecting open spaces.

The Obama Presidential Center is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest hundreds of millions of dollars that will create good jobs on the South Side, bring our communities together and honor the legacy of Chicago’s favorite son and daughter. While some choose to stand in the way of progress for the South Side, we are focused on making progress in every community in Chicago.

Another nonprofit supporter of protecting parklands, Friends of the Parks, chose not to join the suit but issued a statement that also challenges the use of open space for this effort. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, “Officials with the group welcome the Obama Center to the South Side ‘but disagree with the choice to locate it on public parkland rather than vacant land across the street from Washington Park. While we are not involved with this lawsuit in any way, it is an indication of the fact the Friends of the Parks is not alone in our concern about Chicago’s parks being seen as sites for real estate development.’”

For months, a coalition of neighborhood groups, coming together under the banner of the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, has been pushing to tie approval for the project to getting a formal agreement that ensures the project will “help build the kind of communities that Obama fought for.” The proposed location of the new facility places it in the midst of a south Chicago neighborhood that is sorely in need of an economic facelift. The coalition’s fear is their neighborhood will become just another Chicago-gentrifying community, resulting in more poor and black people being pushed out.

Protesters in support of having a Development Agreement appeared on Thursday morning prior to the Chicago City Council meeting to consider approving ordinances in support of the project and the use of Park District lands. Kyana Butler explained their position to WLS-TV: “I am gonna get priced out. It’s not just a fear, it’s something that I know is gonna happen. It’s the same thing that happened when we lived in Stateway Gardens. It’s the same thing that happened when I lived on LeClaire Court. It’s the same thing that’s happening now.”

The specific demands include “a property tax freeze and 30 percent affordable housing for new construction and rehab.”

The Obama Foundation and the city of Chicago have resisted a formal agreement as being unwieldy and restricting them in making the project most impactful. Politico noted the “trust us” attitude in reporting comments made by President Obama to explain this resistance at a meeting discussing the proposed project: “I know the neighborhood. I know that the minute you start saying, ‘Well, we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who’s getting jobs and contracts and this and that’… next thing I know, I’ve got 20 organizations coming out of the woodwork.”

From the Obama Foundation’s perspective, they are a community-based organization that does not need the same constraints as a for-profit business. David Simas, the foundation’s CEO told Politico, “This is not a private project. The model doesn’t fit.” As Politico observed, “Negotiating with community organizations, foundation officials argue, will just slow down construction of a project that stands to benefit the South Side economically.” Rather than create a formal benefits agreement it has chosen to work individually with select community groups and include neighborhood hiring requirements as it contracts for elements of the project.

So, the question has indeed evolved into an answer. Many readers will have experienced the kind of “organizing” principles this unwillingness to slow down and mutually codify reflects, and it is sad to see it recur in the creation of this case.—Martin Levine