Obama Center Garners Praise, Concerns Over Local Impact

On May 3, Barack and Michelle Obama joined a crowd of approximately 300 Chicago community leaders at an invite-only forum to unveil renderings for the OPC and answer questions. "It's not just a building. It's not just a park,” the former president told the assembled crowd. “Hopefully it's a hub where all of us can see a brighter future for the South Side."

Rendering of the Obama Center museum and plaza, courtesy of the Obama Foundation

Three years ago, exuberance and civic pride were at the heart of the efforts to bring the Barack Obama Presidential Center (OPC) to Chicago.The former president acknowledged that despite a bidding process, he always felt the OPC, which would include a presidential library, museum, forum building, and educational and meeting space, would be in Chicago. In July 2016, Chicago’s Jackson Park neighborhood was designated as the center’s future site, to be hosted by the University of Chicago. On May 3, Barack and Michelle Obama joined a crowd of approximately 300 Chicago community leaders at an invite-only forum to unveil renderings for the OPC and answer questions. "It's not just a building. It's not just a park,” the former president told the assembled crowd. “Hopefully it's a hub where all of us can see a brighter future for the South Side." Enthusiasm at the forum was high, but a contingent of community activists have expressed concern over the impact of construction on the neighborhood, and have called for Obama to provide a community benefits agreement (CBA)—a legally binding contract between a developer and local organizations, ensuring that the developer will include features necessary to the well-being of the community.


At the meeting, the Obamas detailed the scope and vision of the project on the shores of Lake Michigan, featuring a unique 160- to 180-foot tower that will serve as the focal point of the campus. Along with the forum and library,the campus will cover approximately 200,000 to 250,000 square feet. The library will contain no paper records; all of Obama’s unclassified records will be fully digitized “to the extent possible,” in addition to more than 250 terabytes of born-digital records, including about 300 million emails. Together, the files “represent the largest digital archive of Presidential records,” according to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which will host the digital archive. Paper documents, under NARA control, will be held at an as yet undisclosed separate facility. NARA has agreed to loan physical records and artifacts to the center and others. In his explanation of how the surface of the underground parking garage would house green space suitable for community and family gatherings, Obama made several references to it being the only presidential library with space for grills for barbecuing. The lighthearted comments continued as he noted that the same outdoor space included a sledding hill to use in winter—something he said Michelle insisted on because there was nowhere to sled during her childhood. Meeting and education rooms for schools, community residents, and visiting researchers are expected to get heavy use. Still an avid basketball player, Obama exuberantly pointed out that the OPC will have an athletic center. Obama explained that he doesn’t foresee the center “as just another boring place that school children are dragged to” for field trips. He stressed repeatedly that community involvement will be key. “The goal of the campus,” he said, is to “train the next generation of leadership” so “they can take up the torch and lead the process of change in the future.” With a design that meanders through part of Jackson Park, the OPC is expected to be a catalyst for economic development that will include retailers, restaurants, and other attractions.


Giant easels holding the renderings were shrouded with black cloth until half an hour before the official start of the program. A bigger reveal, however, came near the end of the 90-minute event, when Obama announced that he and Michelle were each donating $1 million to the project for apprenticeships and summer jobs—helping the community long before the structure opens. But despite his pledge at the forum that the space will be “much more than just a library,” not all South Siders are embracing what the former president and First Lady described as “transformational.” Even though the May 3 announcement at the city’s South Shore Cultural Center was invitation only, some protesters found gaps in security and stood at the doorway distributing leaflets demanding a CBA. While the OPC could generate $2.1 billion for the South Side over the next ten years, according to a report by the Obama Foundation, residents have spoken of fears of crowds, traffic, and gentrification. (Approximately 15 minutes prior to Obama’s arrival, the protesters were removed to the other side of the guarded entrance.) Those calling for a CBA for the Jackson Park site have yet to expound on exactly the type of agreement they’re seeking. Traditional CBAs often involve some sort of jobs set aside for residents, as well as a financial investment in some aspect of the community. While Obama’s intentions for the OPC are generally well regarded, residents are wary of developers looking to exploit local businesses and workers. Michael Strautmanis, VP of community engagement for the Obama Foundation, has pointed to the establishment of an Inclusion Council in October 2016, created to ensure that the foundation—and its products, including the OPC—are informed by “a diverse set of views and opinions and in line with the values of diversity and inclusion.” The council will bring together a diverse cross-section of Chicagoans to help guide the foundation’s strategic goals and provide input. “You have to have grassroots leaders, grassroots folks participating in the organizations as decision makers,” Strautmanis told local station WBEZ. “You also have to have institutions at the table who can harness their economic power and scope and scale to be able to help accomplish those goals. We’re going to bring all these folks together with us to try to take advantage of what we think is a once in a lifetime opportunity for transformative economic and community development.”
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