‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Impact of Obama Center Construction on Woodlawn

Construction at the Obama Presidential Center is back on after being halted when a noose was found on the site late last week. 

The disturbing discovery prompted a halt to work, a reward for information on who put it up and anti-bias training for the crew working on the site. 

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The Center has been the source of excitement and anxiety for residents in the South Side Woodlawn community, who are eager to benefit from the major development but are concerned about being priced out. 

The’re also raising concerns about the difficulty of getting around the massive construction site. 

Local commuters shared street closures, changing lane patterns and truck traffic are creating delays and confusion for drivers and CTA passengers.

Interactive map: More from our community reporting series

One long-time Woodlawn resident said there is heavy congestion in the area because of the traffic and confusion around changing traffic patterns. 

Others who are used to taking CTA buses said they’re experiencing long wait times.

“I hope somebody can do something about that because I barely can walk. My back hurt, my leg messed up and I barely can walk,” said commuter Denise Simmons. “And I can’t be out here standing like that for an hour just to wait on the CTA because they’re doing construction.”

In a statement, the Obama Foundation told WTTW News: “When construction of the Obama Presidential Center is complete, we will have created a world-class destination … We know traffic changes are never easy and we’re working with CDOT to be sure drivers have plenty of advance notice and alternate routes for any changes.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Transit Authority sent a statement saying: “The schedule and impact of project work is determined by the contractor. CTA will adjust its bus services accordingly ... Recent nearby project work has created some instances of unsafe boarding/alighting conditions for CTA customers resulting in unplanned, temporary bus stop changes. ... CTA has been coordinating with the contractor to ensure ADA accessibility.”

For her part, Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward) said better communication is key to easing constituent concerns.

“The community is growing and so there’s a lot going on, but classic city of Chicago, we work in silos so the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing and the constituents get left out in between,” Taylor said. “We got to do a better job at working with CDOT and the foundation to inform people of how to get around … because people have to get to work.”

As for the noose recently found at the construction site, Taylor said it’s horrifying to see that display of hate in 2022, calling it an example that Chicago isn’t as progressive as some assume. 

“Think about this: across the street from the site is a high school. And so did you think about the Black children that go to this school when you thought to put a noose up?” Taylor said. “Just say y’all hate Black people. Just say you hate poor people – cause that’s what it feels like.”

In a statement, the Lakeside Alliance construction firm building the Center said: “Over the last several days, all staff and onsite workers have participated in anti-bias training. Additional safety and security measures have also been implemented... We will continue to provide assistance to the authorities regarding the ongoing investigation to identify the individual or individuals responsible for this horrific act.”

Another concern around the Obama Center that’s still top of mind for many residents: ensuring affordable housing and preventing the displacement of current residents. 

The organization Southside Together Organizing for Power was behind the unsuccessful push for a community benefits agreement, but did notch a win with an affordable housing ordinance for Woodlawn, that set aside vacant, city-owned lots for redevelopment with affordable housing, among other efforts. 

STOP wants to see another large city-owned lot near the center become part of the effort as well.

“63rd and Blackstone is the lot that is empty–the biggest lot, city-owned, closest to the Obama Presidential Center. It would allow for the most units to be built–mixed income, 30% of them being affordable,” said Savannah Brown, an organizer at STOP. “It would create the biggest safety net for residents who want to stay in Woodlawn to be able to as we see housing costs continue to rise.”

STOP’s been gathering signatures for a ballot referendum calling on the city to set aside that land and ease the affordable housing crunch. 

Brown said when they talk to neighbors, they hear a common refrain.

“People we talk to say, ‘I want to stay here, I’m happy that the Obama Center’s coming, but there’s no option if I want to move, there’s no home options for me to buy that are affordable to me.’ People that are fortunate enough to be in subsidized units right now, should they want to go elsewhere, there’s a lot of new development coming in, not a lot of them are an option for them to move into,” Brown said.

STOP’s also gathering signatures for a referendum in nearby South Shore, calling for a community benefits agreement aimed at preventing displacement. 

Community Programming and Food Security

The South Side YMCA is right near the Obama Center and Executive Director Kenne’quia Howell sees it as an opportunity for potential collaboration. She pointed to the close roots the Obamas have to Woodlawn and connections to the YMCA itself. She said the former president shot hoops there and surprised some youth during a visit last year. 

“We’re really excited because we get the opportunity to not only be right across the street from them,” Howell said. “But to have different conversations with them about ways that we can join forces together and really maximize our impact on the community through different programs and services.”

One of the services the facility offers is a tech hub, which just went through a recent upgrade. Comcast is investing $500k into the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago over the next three years. Part of that went into enhancing the South Side YMCA’s tech space. 

Howell said the company recognized their work on addressing digital equity. 

“People of our ages–not just our youth–our seniors and everyone in between can come in and learn whether it’s just the basics of learning how to use a computer or something more advanced like learning 3D printing,”  Howell said.

Video: Watch our fill interview with Kenne’quia Howell.

Meanwhile, other leaders are addressing matters like food insecurity in the community.

James McMurray, chairman and co-founder of the Woodlawn Community Food Pantry, said more than 80% of who they serve are seniors and the need has only grown since the pandemic hit.

They opened the pantry in January 2020 and were one of the few that stayed open throughout the pandemic.

“When we came back in June, there was an immediate growth spurt and we understand it was because people were laid off, and everyone was supplementing their grocery dollars as best they could,” McMurray said. “That’s when food pantries started finding out how important they were. Our growth since then has been tremendous. Every week there are new clients.”

McMurray said they are currently seeing over a hundred families a week, feeding about four to five-hundred people a week.

They have since become a food rescue hub in collaboration with the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

“Not only do we pick up extra food for ourselves, but we deliver to other pantries on our route and everyone is really happy to receive the extra food. Everybody’s numbers are going up,” McMurray said. “We thought when we went back to normal service levels, feeding people twice a month, our numbers were going to drop. They dropped for maybe two weeks…we’re still hitting 100 every week…everyone tells you, ‘Eggs are so expensive, milk is so expensive.’”

The Woodlawn Community Food Pantry will be hosting a Thanksgiving meal giveaway this Saturday, followed by their regular food pantry operation on Monday.

Video: Watch our full interview with James McMurray.

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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