January 8, 2017; Crain’s Chicago Business
Echoing the sentiments of many community leaders, faculty members at the University of Chicago have formally voiced their opposition to the construction plans for the Obama presidential library. The letter addressed to the Obama Foundation, signed by more than one hundred professors, is the latest controversy for a project that has lacked community support due to top-down development practices.
Since plans were announced to construct the library in Jackson Park, near the University of Chicago, the Obama Foundation has received constant rebuke from local leaders demanding a community benefits agreement, green space advocates opposing the privatization of park space, and unions wanting jobs for local workers. Joining this chorus of opposition, professors at the University of Chicago believe the Obama Library is poorly planned to benefit the local economy and South Side residents. In their collective statement, the professors explained:
We are concerned that rather than becoming a bold vision for urban living in the future it will soon become an object-lesson in the mistakes of the past. We urge the Obama Foundation to explore alternative sites on the South Side that could be developed with more economic benefits, better public transportation, and less cost to taxpayers. We would be pleased to support the Obama Center if the plan genuinely promoted economic development in our neighborhoods and respected our precious public urban parks.
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In addition to questioning the pace of the project and its lack of transparency, those opposing the Obama Foundation have been frustrated by the repeated failure to listen to community concerns. Interviewed about initiating the faculty letter, W.J.T. Mitchell, a professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago, explained, “I would love to hear them actually engage with people who understand the issues in some depth.”
For its part, the Obama Foundation has received strong support from local politicians, elites, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff. Indeed, at a recent inaugural summit attended by global leaders and artists, local resistance to the library was drowned out by national and international celebrities praising the nascent Obama Foundation. Proponents of the library have also pointed to new changes in the design elements of the project and a controversial parking structure as evidence that community input has been incorporated.
This week, the Obama Foundation presented the estimated costs for the project to Chicago City Council. Relying heavily on public resources for infrastructure changes, approval for the $350 million Obama Library is considered a formality by many observers. Designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the Obama presidential library will feature:
- a 235-foot-high, eight-story main building that houses a museum of exhibitions and artifacts telling the Obamas’ story, along with civil rights and African American history
- A two-story forum building with meeting spaces, an auditorium, and a public restaurant
- A two-story library, possibly built in partnership with the Chicago Public Library
- A public outdoor plaza for informal and planned public gatherings
- A two-story athletic building partially submerged and covered with a green roof
- A woodland trail for cyclists and pedestrians on the east side of the campus
- An underground parking facility located between the library and athletic center
Still, as the faculty letter indicates, the growing resistance in Chicago to the Obama library doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Additional community input meetings for the embattled project are scheduled in upcoming weeks.—Antonio Lopez