South Side Coalition Tells Obama Center Obstructionists: Enough Is Enough

Design rendering of the Obama Presidential Center. (Courtesy of The Obama Foundation)Design rendering of the Obama Presidential Center. (Courtesy of The Obama Foundation)

South Side supporters of the Obama Presidential Center have had it with the opposition’s ongoing fight against the center’s location in Jackson Park, which was announced more than four years ago.

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“Enough is enough,” a coalition of more than 100 residents, business owners and community organizations declared in an open letter released last week. 

The letter blew the lid off years of accumulated steam, as backers of the center have seen the project mired in one legal dispute after another, all while the clock is ticking on the promise of jobs, tourism and community revitalization.

“As a resident of South Shore, I can only see its benefits,” said Ernest Sanders, managing director of South Shore Works, a community development organization devoted to restoring South Shore to its former glory.

“The South Side is fading away. We need destination locations and anchoring institutions. The Obama Center will do that not just locally but globally. It will more than put us on the map,” said Sanders. “This is about the entire South Side and the impact it will have on housing, the arts, education and economic development.”

The coronavirus pandemic and the protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd have only increased the sense of urgency surrounding the center’s potential to bring about transformational development in a part of Chicago that has long suffered from a deep disparity in the allocation of resources, said Alisa Starks, a South Shore resident and entrepreneur, who’s in the midst of developing an entertainment complex in South Shore.

“This is a silver bullet, a shining star,” Starks said of the Obama Center. “The project’s scale allows it to make an impact in one swoop. It’s too important to lose. It’s just too important.”

In their letter, the coalition pointedly calls out Protect Our Parks and Jackson Park Watch, which have waged the most public battle against the Obama Center. The two nonprofit groups specifically oppose the choice of Jackson Park, designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, on the grounds that the center will destroy the park’s historic character. The organizations have consistently maintained that they support the center, as long as it’s moved to nearby Washington Park, where there’s plenty of underdeveloped acreage.

Protect Our Parks has pled its case in circuit court and lost, appealed that decision and lost, and recently was turned away from relitigating in district court. The organization’s leader, Herb Caplan, has vowed to pursue the argument with the Supreme Court, a prospect that’s exasperating to the center’s supporters.

“Early on, when these claims were made, it was fair to have them play out. Well, that’s happened,” said Tonya Trice, executive director of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce. “If the residents that live in the surrounding area are in favor of the design as is, that should be enough.

“We have been going back and forth with these meritless lawsuits for several years. We would like to get this project underway,” Trice said. “We want these organizations to know the community stands behind the Obama Foundation. The residents, the businesses, all the stakeholders, we stand united.”

(Courtesy of the Obama Foundation)(Courtesy of the Obama Foundation)

The way the coalition sees things, as stated in its letter: “POP (Protect Our Parks) and Jackson Park Watch care more about trees and traffic than they do about the lives of people who are impacted by decades of systemic disinvestment, job loss, poverty and limited economic opportunity.”

The letter accuses the organizations of practicing “paternalism disguised as community advocacy” and calls their obstruction of the Obama Center “callous, uncaring, and devoid of any sensitivity to a people who are still longing to be seen and heard.”

“What, indeed, are you ‘protecting’ our parks from?” the coalition asked.

The response from Protect Our Parks member Ross Petersen, a native Hyde Park-er and former president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council, is that it’s the Obama Foundation, not POP, that’s the source of the stalemate.

“Why this group (the foundation) insists on (Jackson Park), and only the park, this makes me weary. Why can’t this be built in the city? What magic ingredient does the park bring to your plan?” Petersen asked.

Construction of the Obama Center would subtract 20 acres from Jackson Park, require the removal of several hundred mature trees, erect a 235-foot tower and cause the reconfiguration of roadways, to the tune of $200 million in taxpayer funds, he said.

“There are many Chicagoans who remember the destruction of our historic buildings, such as the Stock Exchange, demolished in 1972. What we are witnessing here is a similar desecration of our cultural legacy, in this case historic landscape design,” Petersen said.

All the hoped-for economic prosperity would still be realized by the community were the center to be built on Stony Island or King Drive, he said. “Lobby the Obama Foundation to move the OPC out of this public park. That would end the controversy.”

(WTTW News / Google Satellite)(WTTW News / Google Satellite)

One voice that’s been relatively quiet during the Obama Center debate has been that of Friends of the Parks, a marked 180-degree departure from the lead role the organization played in beating back movie mogul George Lucas’ bid to build a museum on the lakefront.

It’s precisely because of lessons learned during the Lucas Museum fight that Friends of the Parks has taken a muted stance regarding the Obama Center, said executive director Juanita Irizarry.

On the most basic level, the legal argument against the Lucas Museum — that the lakefront is protected by public trust doctrine — doesn’t apply in the case of the Obama Center, she said. 

More broadly, though, Friends of the Parks took to heart the criticism that it hadn’t listened to the needs of Chicago’s Black community in nixing the Lucas Museum, Irizarry said, and with the Obama Center, racial sensitivities are even more heightened.

Passions are running high on both sides, and positions have become entrenched, she said, but the situation is more complicated and nuanced than a simple “for” or “against.”

“We certainly need to be thoughtful. We’ve tried to look at this project (the Obama Center) from lots of different perspectives,” said Irizarry. 

There are investments in Jackson Park that will happen because of the Obama Center, but there are also concerns that public land will be stealthily privatized, roped off for special events more often than people might imagine, she said. The loss of 20 acres is no small matter, particularly given how valuable green space has been to communities during the pandemic, and striking a balance between competing desires for an active “Millennium Park South” versus a serene natural experience will be difficult to achieve. 

Friends of the Parks is raising these issues during conversations with the Obama Foundation, a back-and-forth that never occurred with the Lucas team, Irizarry said.

But the biggest difference between the two museum proposals: Barack Obama himself.

“He’s our hometown hero. Of course we want to honor him,” said Irizarry.

While she wishes the city could have nailed a “win-win-win” by locating the Obama Center on vacant land instead of inside an existing historic park, that’s not a hill Friends of the Parks is prepared to die on during this go-round.

“Our main thrust is, ‘What are the best scenarios that can come out of this?’” she said.

Note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Ross Petersen’s name.

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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