The Obama Center, Jackson Park, and Our Community

When I’m out speaking with voters, there is one issue comes that up over and over. Residents are extremely passionate about the proposed Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. I feel that it’s critically important for the residents of the 25th District to understand how I would approach this and future development projects, if elected.

Communities which host major tourist attractions face certain sacrifices and uncertain benefits. Sometimes the sacrifices are too great: casinos in Chicago, for example will never bring enough benefit to outweigh the costs. In other cases, including the Obama Center, we must develop an approach that articulates the benefits, creates benchmarks to guarantee them, and take steps to minimize the costs.

Japanese Garden in Chicago's Jackson Park
Japanese Garden in Chicago’s Jackson Park
While it would be an honor for our district to host such a prestigious institution, the decision to locate the center in Jackson Park creates numerous complexities and more discussion is needed.


I will insist that any development projects in the district take the following steps: engage in a fair, open, and transparent design and acquisition process; ensure that the benefits are fairly distributed and largely kept within our community; and demonstrate that the project will be physically and economically integrated into the community.

There are many community concerns that have not been adequately addressed, including the proposed closing of Cornell Drive, the reduction of nature preserve land, and the use of public funds. There also has not been a comprehensive plan bringing together all the proposed enhancements to Jackson Park including the Obama Center, the new golf course, and other new development. I propose that all stakeholders take the time and resources to develop a unified and comprehensive plan for all of Jackson Park, discussed in open community meetings, including an open question and answer period in which community voices are not only heard by Park District and Obama Center officials responsible for their respective projects but also other members of the community. Further, there should be an opportunity for official public comment online for those unable to participate in in-person meetings to add their comments order to ensure full transparency and to ensure that there is a coordinated plan moving forward.

The second condition, ensuring that benefits are fairly distributed and kept within the community is more straightforward. I believe we cannot afford to commit public money to the construction of the Obama Center without a satisfactory community benefits agreement detailing procedures on local hiring, living wage, and the use of neighborhood contractors.

Finally, the center must be integrated into the community, as a hub, an organizing principle, a place of real local impact. I think of Boston, which hosts the John F. Kennedy library, a fantastic museum and research center which has no connection to, or presence in the troubled neighborhood of Dorchester which hosts it. The library is both economically and physically separated from the community, located on a peninsula, a 25-minute walk from the nearest public transportation station. We must avoid this fate for Jackson Park, as it would waste a massive opportunity to develop some of the economically depressed areas around the park and leave an ugly stain on the legacy of a man I and many other Chicagoans consider truly great.

Beyond the scope of any agreement between the community and the Obama foundation, but still critically important, we must take broader steps to mitigate the possibility of displacement of existing residents through gentrification. I’ve proposed a comprehensive renter protection package to shield all of our neighborhoods from displacement, and no agreement for the Obama Center should move forward without consideration of the lives of current residents in the immediate vicinity.

For decades the South Side was the industrial heart of Chicago. The steel plants and railyards brought prosperity and growth to the rest of the city while our residents bore the brunt of these industries’ environmental degradation, in our homes and in our bodies. Our communities can no longer afford to drive the rest of the city toward prosperity, while receiving little ourselves.

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