Obama center community benefits agreement gains traction as Jackson Park site controversy continues

City officials are meeting with aldermen and advocates about a proposed ordinance to ensure affordable housing near the Obama Presidential Center.

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In what one community leader called a “breakthrough,” the city’s law department will meet with aldermanic sponsors of a community benefits agreement for the area around the proposed Obama Presidential Center in order to iron out legal issues with their proposed ordinance.

The city’s housing department agreed to facilitate the process at a meeting of community stakeholders Tuesday after members of the Obama CBA Coalition held a prayer vigil outside the meeting, said Alex Goldenberg, executive director of Southside Together Organizing for Power and a coalition leader. 

Goldenberg said he hopes legal guidance on the ordinance from city attorneys will help shape deliberations of the Woodlawn housing working group, which has been meeting for several weeks under the housing department’s aegis.

As proposed by aldermen Leslie Hairston (5th) and Jeanette Taylor (20th), the CBA ordinance would require that 30% of housing development be affordable when city assistance is involved, or when demolition or “substantial rehab” takes place, and would give tenant groups first right of refusal in the sale of multifamily buildings. It would also dedicate city-owned vacant land for affordable housing and establish a community trust fund that would support property tax relief and other affordable housing strategies.

In July, a study of the area around the Obama center by the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that rising rents in newly renovated and new construction units within two miles of the proposed Obama center site are unaffordable for most current residents, eviction rates are among the highest in the city, housing voucher holders may be priced out by rising rents, and the large amount of publicly-owned vacant housing “presents opportunities for new mixed-income and affordable housing.”

Both of the area’s aldermen won election this year backing a CBA, and over 80% of voters in precincts near the Obama center backed a CBA in a referendum in February.

Meanwhile, controversy over siting the OPC in Jackson Park continues unabated – highlighted last month when about two dozen members of Protect Our Parks tied red ribbons around hundreds of trees that would be removed under current plans.

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Obama center supporters went behind them and removed the ribbons, the Hyde Park Herald reported.

As many as 600 trees would be removed to accommodate buildings at the presidential center and associated road widenings, including Stony Island and Lake Shore Drive, said Ross Peterson of POP.

Peterson told me he joined POP about ten years ago when he headed the Jackson Park Advisory Council and was fighting Mayor Richard M. Daley’s plans to displace recreational facilities in the park to make room for the 2016 Olympics. (JPAC’s current leadership supports siting the presidential center in the park.) He said POP protestors were acting in the tradition of the Daniel Burnham Brigade, which tied ribbons to threatened trees in the same park in 1965, when Daley’s father wanted to build a highway connecting Lake Shore Drive and the Skyway.

He said there are several vacant lots on the west side of Stony Island facing the park that should be considered as sites for the center, including a parking lot owned by the University of Chicago on 60th Street directly across from the proposed site, and the university-owned American Taxi Service building, just down the street, which is currently being demolished

The university, which sponsored the winning bid for the Obama center, “only looked at park sites – that’s the real blemish,” Peterson said. “Why put it in the park when there you have vacant lots or parking lots available,” he said. “There’s been no explanation of that.”

The Obama Foundation “is turning its back on the long legacy of Chicagoans fighting to protect their parks,” he said.

Maurice Cox, the city’s new planning and development commissioner, has reiterated the position of previous officials that the city is committed to siting the presidential center in the park. “As far as I’m concerned, let’s consider that decision done,” he told the Chicago Tribune.

Some observers say this puts the city in an awkward position, since it’s charged with guiding a federal review that is supposed to consider alternatives to putting the center in the park. That review is currently on hold following a letter from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the federal agency that would resolve disputes over the review. 

The council said more detail is needed in the Assessment of Effects issued in July, particularly regarding its finding that the presidential center “will have an adverse effect to Jackson Park Historic Landscape District” and “will alter, directly or indirectly, characteristics of the historic property that qualify it for inclusion in the National Register [of Historic Places].” The impact of traffic changes should also be studied further, the council said.

Ultimately the review will decide whether steps are required to “avoid, minimize, or mitigate” adverse effects. That could range from moving the proposed site or reducing the size of the center, down to installing a graphic display memorializing the original landscape.If the city is foreclosing alternatives ahead of time, that might spell more trouble down the road —  as the case of a similar review in Pullman shows — for a project that’s already been delayed for years due to concerns over its impact on Jackson Park.

Update: After publication of this column, the mayor’s office released a statement to The Chicago Reporter saying that the Lightfoot administration has committed to finalizing a “an affordable housing plan that will further our goals of preventing displacement and building new homeownership in the area” of the Obama Presidential Center by the year’s end, informed by meetings with Woodlawn residents, aldermen and other stakeholders. 

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that city officials had been meeting with aldermen and advocates about a community benefits agreement prior to Tuesday’s prayer vigil.