Controversy over Obama Presidential Center continues; Obama in city to meet foundation fellows

Tensions were high on Wednesday as the Obama Foundation heads to city planning commission to seek approval to use Jackson Park as the location for the Obama Presidential Center.

On Wednesday, both the Obamas and clashing neighborhood groups spoke about the proposal.

The Obama Foundation will present its plan at City Hall Thursday morning. It’s the only thing on the agenda which could be a good thing because there are a lot of people who want their say.

“We are for the Obama Center. We just don’t want to get displaced,” Paru Brown, a community activist, said.

On a vacant lot in Woodlawn on Wednesday, residents gathered to share their fears about what the Obama Presidential Center might mean for their neighborhood.

“Don’t forget us in East Woodlawn. On the South Side of Chicago. At the lake. We want to still be able to walk to the park,” Michelle Williams, Woodlawn resident, said.

Many said they fear they will lose their homes to gentrification and rising property taxes.

“I just don’t trust the mayor and the University of Chicago because they have a history of making false promises to the community and say, ‘We’re going to do A but they end up doing B’,” Marilyn Harper, Westlawn resident, said

They want the Obama Foundation to agree to a so-called “community benefit agreement.”

The agreement would include a property tax freeze for longtime residents, a mandate that developers like the University of Chicago invest in new affordable housing, and a commitment to hire local.

Even without those promises, many residents think the economic investment is long overdue.

“It’s a matter of what type of vision do you have. if you have a vision for economic progress for the community then whatever sacrifices we have to make to have that progress we should be willing to make that sacrifice,” Debra Adams, Woodlawn resident, said.

Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama met with the first class of Obama Center fellows on Wednesday.

The group met at the Stony Island Arts Bank, steps away from where the future Obama Presidential Center is expected to be built.

The fellows are 20 people from eleven countries. More than 20,000 people from nearly 200 countries applied for the positions.

Obama said the foundation’s plan isn’t just about buildings, it’s about people.

“I’m really excited about the fact that we’ll be presenting our plans to the planning commission tomorrow and the support we’ve been able to marshal from the community,” Obama said.

The center would include a 19-acre campus including a museum tower, an auditorium and a new public library.

Protect Our Parks Incorporated filed a federal lawsuit trying to block the plan.

In addition to calling the proposal an “illegal land grab,” they argue hard copies of Obama’s presidential papers should be stored at the library instead of in a national archive elsewhere.

"The records are going to be digitized. Welcome to the 21st century. They can be both in New York and Chicago,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said.

If approved, the $500 million center would open in 2021.”

They will also be discussing the boundaries for the center in addition to the question of who is going to own this land at Thursday’s meeting. It’s expected that the park district would sell the park land to the city and then the city would enter into a long-term lease with the Obama Foundation. That’s now in question given the lawsuit filed earlier this week.