Washington Park residents are seeking a community benefits agreement from the University of Chicago — with a South Side trauma center as the first item —  in connection with the school’s bid to host the Obama presidential library.

“All we are asking is that they be a good neighbor,” said Cecilia Butler, longtime president of the Washington Park Advisory Council.

Butler supports a South Side location for the presidential library but opposes the university’s proposal to include 22 acres of Washington Park as part of the library complex — unless the president and first lady themselves say that’s what they want.

The western area of the park included in the university’s proposal — released Tuesday after months of secrecy — comprises an arboretum established in 2004 to protect a stand of Burr Oak trees that are nearly 150 years old.

Running from Garfield Boulevard to 51st Street, between King Drive and an inner park drive, it’s really the only area north of Garfield “where people can sit and relax,” said Butler.  To the east, the park’s central green features a running path around a dozen baseball fields, with a cricket pitch in the center.  The western area is also where the Washington Park Forum has held regular gatherings to discuss current affairs since the 1920s.

It’s one of two possible sites disclosed by the university Tuesday, each taking more than 20 acres of park land; the other is at Jackson Park.  The Jackson Park Advisory Council is awaiting final details — which won’t come till much farther down the road — before passing judgment, said president Louise McCurry. That land is on or near a football field built by the NFL and used by Hyde Park High School, across the street.

Courtesy of the University of Chicago
Courtesy of the University of Chicago

The sites were made public after the Barack Obama Foundation raised a red flag over the university’s use of land that it doesn’t own.  Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised to resolve the issue and announced “a public process for land acquisition.”

“Emanuel needs to stay out of it,” Butler said. “People will oppose something just because he’s for it.”  She added, “He’s a bad influence on the process, because he doesn’t care about process and he doesn’t care about parks.”

She said community opinion on the proposal is divided, with many welcoming a presidential library and others fearing that it could fuel gentrification and displacement.

Some of that has to do with a history of antagonistic relationships between the university and the surrounding African-American community.  “They’re using a black president’s library to regentrify and break up the Black Belt on the South Side by coming through 55th Street [Garfield Boulevard], where they’ve been buying up property since 2008,” said Harold Lucas, of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council.  The council fielded an unsuccessful proposal to site the library on city-owned lakefront land where Michael Reese Hospital was demolished during the city’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.

Lucas characterized the library plan as a continuation of university efforts to control the larger community, stretching back to its support for racially restrictive covenants in the first half of the 20th century and urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s.

The university has said the park land sites were chosen in “a collaborative process” including 20 meetings with community groups over recent months.

If it wants community support for its proposal, the university should sign a community benefits agreement backed by the Washington Park Advisory Council and the Washington Park Residents Council, Butler said.  She said a copy of the CBA went to University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer months ago, but “we have heard nothing” in response.

The CBA calls for the university to partner with Provident Hospital to create a trauma center for the South Side, a longstanding demand of community activists.  It calls for university support for affordable and low-income housing, jobs and job training, and educational grants for Washington Park residents.

It calls for the university to support property-tax relief for longterm homeowners so they aren’t driven out of the neighborhood.  Washington Park proper and the Washington Park neighborhood located to its west were included in a controversial new TIF district in October that has sparked concerns about rising taxes. Meanwhile the university has spent nearly $20 million to acquire properties along King Drive and Garfield Boulevard in recent years.

The CBA calls for the university to support creation of a Washington Park Historical Society in the old Green Line station on the south side of Garfield — and to support community efforts to open a cooperative grocery store.

Butler noted that in acquiring properties on Garfield, the university “closed the one little grocery store on that street,” creating a food desert in the area.

“We’re willing to be good neighbors with the university, but there are certain things we need,” Butler said.  For starters: “We need a grocery store.”

The city is holding community meetings on the proposal Tuesday, Jan. 6, at 7 p.m. at Hyde Park High School, and Wednesday, Jan. 7, at 12 noon at the Washington Park field house.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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1 Comment

  1. 235 feet tall in the middle of a park, right next to both the Midway and the Museum of Science and Industry is a bit pretentious

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