Obama Foundation Construction Draws Community Ire

The Obama Presidential Center could be uprooting a long-held promise it made to the community.

Some community groups spoke out Tuesday after construction equipment was seen removing trees and digging up the field on the southern end of Jackson Park. They say the Obama Foundation has jumped the gun on construction, which has received pushback from park preservationists.

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Groups like Jackson Park Watch and the Cultural Landscape Foundation say that trust has officially been broken between the Obama Foundation and the community. That’s because – as the Chicago Sun-Times reported – construction crews have been all over Jackson Park near 63rd and Stony Island ripping up softball diamonds that were there and uprooting trees that had been there for decades.

The groups say the foundation had promised not to remove any trees until it had gotten all of its federal and local permits and approvals. The project is also facing a lawsuit on the grounds that the structure should not be built in protected park space – even though Chicago City Council approved it.

“There are questions on whether the community can trust what’s going on here,” said Margaret Schmid, director of Jackson Park Watch, a community group that has been sharply critical of the project’s location in Jackson Park. “How about things like the community benefits agreements? How can that be trusted? How about the traffic plans – that their traffic plans won’t cause any problems? It raises all kinds of issues. And it’s very sad to have to introduce that kind of issue into this already controversial situation.”

The Obama Foundation says this field isn’t technically part of the Obama Presidential Center. But because the building will partially cover an existing high school track and field, the center is paying to move the track and field south, and is footing the bill for it as part of the planned development agreement.

“While the track and field of Jackson Park is not on the Obama Presidential Center site, the Obama Foundation offered to fund the construction of the new track to ensure continuity of access to the track for the community,” said a spokesperson for the Obama Presidential Center. “The construction schedule put forward by the Chicago Park District ensures the new track will be ready for students and fall sports leagues.”

In terms of uprooting trees, the Chicago Park District says 40 are being taken down. Eleven of them were dead anyway, according to the park district, and 29 of them will be put back once the field is in place.

“We are pleased that the Obama Foundation has partnered with the Chicago Park District to fund the construction of the track and field,” a Chicago Park District spokesperson said. “The new 8-lane, 400-meter track and field allows for an improved amenity for the community in the form of a wider turf field to accommodate an expanded soccer program.”

But Schmid says she’s not buying the arguments.

“We had hoped that there would be respect for the process, and this isn’t respectful of the process, and that is too bad and does not lend itself to smooth sailing,” she said. “The Obama Legacy is really not helped by this kind of behavior.”

No work on the actual structure is expected until next year.

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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