Former President Barack Obama spoke to members of the Economic Club of Chicago ahead of the inauguration of the Obama Presidential Center on the city’s South Side.

Domestic AP

CHICAGO – After years of backsliding by park conservation advocates and community groups concerned about displacement, the Obama Presidential Center is expected to lead the way this fall, and the former president visited area residents this week .

“Traditionally, I think presidential libraries can be a bit backward… a sort of mausoleum in the sense that not much is happening,” Barack Obama said Friday at a virtual event hosted by the Economic Club of Chicago. “Our thought was, well let’s create an institution that is alive and vibrant and that brings people together.”

The $ 500 million center, designed by architects Todd Williams and Billie Tsien, is expected to be located in Jackson Park, in the south of the city. The center should include a museum, a forum, a public library, a square, a playground and walking and cycling paths. The Obama Foundation has said it hopes the center will bring 700,000 people to the South Side each year.

The site will be located near where Barack and Michelle Obama first met, settled down and had their daughters. The location is close to the University of Chicago Law School, where Obama taught constitutional law. It’s also a few miles from where Michelle grew up and several miles from where Obama worked as a community organizer. Obama represented the region in the Illinois Senate from 1997 to 2004.

This week, Obama met with local business owners in the surrounding neighborhoods and made a surprise visit to a youth football team. People who live within a three-kilometer radius of the site are predominantly low-income, according to a 2017 report from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and many live in historically divested communities.

“Sadly, some communities have experienced extraordinary problems and hardships for decades,” Obama said. “This is one of the reasons I think the Obama Presidential Center can be a powerful engine. It gives us the opportunity to locate ourselves in a community and have a presence that means it is of a significant part of our city. “

The Foundation announced the location of the center in 2016, but the project was delayed by a lengthy federal review process required because the location of the center, Jackson Park, is included in the National Register of Historic Places. The park was designed by architect Frederick Law Olmsted for the 1893 World’s Fair.

The National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration have concluded their quadrennial review in February, and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said physical construction would begin as early as August.

Several local groups, including park conservation advocates and a coalition of community organizations, have raised concerns about the project for years.

Park curators have warned of the effects on the historic park and have proposed an alternative location for the center. In 2018, a group led by the Protect Our Parks association for follow-up the city and the park district.

“This is a 150-year-old work of art, and it is widely considered to be one of America’s most beautiful landscaped parks,” said plaintiff Tom Mitchell, professor at the University of Chicago. who teaches a course on landscape history. “It will be a very, very ugly moment when the bulldozers come in and people see those old trees washed away.”

In 2020, an appeals court – where Judge Amy Coney Barrett sat at the time – ruled that the prosecution had no standing. Last year, the group asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the appeals court’s decision, but the high court dismissed the petition in April. Barrett was not involved in the review, the court said.

Michael Rachlis, who is part of the legal team at Protect Our Parks, said the group plans to file a preliminary injunction motion in court this month to request a suspension of work on the center.

“If you’re trying to grab a huge chunk of a public park, you should have a really good reason, and there shouldn’t be any workable alternative,” Mitchell said. “In this case, there are workable and better alternatives.”

Valerie Jarrett, President of the Foundation, acknowledged the expected legal action at the virtual event on Friday.

“We expect the same small group to sue us again and try to get a restraining order,” she said. “But we are very confident that we are on a solid legal footing.”

Meanwhile, a cluster of community organizations under the banner of the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition have also expressed concern that long-time residents of areas surrounding the site are at risk of being evicted from their neighborhood.

“The reason the center is coming from the south side is because these are the people who elected Barack Obama. These people should not be punished for it. They should be able to benefit from what is happening,” said Dixon Romeo, coalition member and resident of the South Shore neighborhood, where Michelle Obama grew up.

The inhabitants of the district are mainly tenants, according to the 2017 report. Almost half of tenants have annual incomes below $ 20,000, eviction rates are among the highest in the city, and rents are rising in newly renovated units and new construction, which the majority of current tenants do can’t afford, according to the report.

The coalition launched a multi-year campaign demanding a community benefits agreement to protect residents from displacement, and the city and the Foundation have since made a series of pledges to address the coalition’s concerns.

In September, the city adopted a order for the Woodlawn neighborhood imposing affordability requirements on all rental and for-sale housing developed on city-owned residential land and appropriating approximately $ 4.5 million – and raising an additional $ 5 million in loans – to help rehabilitate existing affordable housing.

The ordinance also created a “right of first refusal pilot program” in the neighborhood that would require an owner of a building of 10 or more units to give tenants the exclusive opportunity to bid on the property before it is sold.

However, several other areas in the area – such as Grand Crossing, South Shore and Hyde Park – have not received similar arrangements.

“This (the ordinance) isn’t enough for Woodlawn, but it’s better than what all the other neighborhoods have because we all haven’t had anything,” Romeo said. “We are already starting to see the effects and signs of the displacement.”

For its part, the Foundation is committed to allocating 50% of the centre’s subcontracting lots to companies belonging to minorities, women or veterans, with 35% of workers living on the south and west sides. In March, the Foundation created a “We Can Build It Consortium” to involve more local residents in the construction trades and committed $ 850,000 to train 400 new apprentices from the South and West neighborhoods.

The Foundation also donated up to $ 3.5 million to the City to cover the construction costs of the nearby multi-purpose artificial turf field.

“It could mean a transformation of the community, and this transformation will mean either equitable development or displacement,” Romeo said.

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