By Lee Edwards and Erick Johnson
It will be big, impressive and very expensive.
Chicago and the nation finally got a glimpse of a project that has Chicago excited and Black Chicago concerned. Inside the once segregated South Shore Cultural Center, former first couple Barack and Michelle Obama unveiled the $500 million Obama Presidential Center hoping to silence critics with bold plans and ambitious goals to address the needs of two predominantly Black neighborhoods that, for decades, have been in desperate need of revitalization.
After a storm of criticism and concerns of transparency, Obama and members of the Obama Foundation and architectural team presented scale models and designs to more than 200 guests and dignitaries in a high-profile affair attended by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and prominent political and community leaders.
The Obama Presidential Center will include a library and a state-of-the-art museum. It will also have an art museum, classrooms, labs, outdoor spaces, and moreover its 200-225,000 gross square footage landscape. Depicted in the visual renderings for the Center was a museum and library positioned only a few blocks adjacent to Hyde Park Academy High School in Jackson Park.
During his opening remarks, Obama stated some of the best moments in his life took place in the South Shore neighborhood. He explained while there was a formal bidding process to determine the location of the Center, the South Side of Chicago was always going to be his choice. He said he envisions the Center to look forward and not be just a “monument to the past.” He reaffirmed his desire for the Center to be a “living” institution in the community and not just a place where young people are forced to go to for homework assignments.
Obama took time to address some of the more practical issues current residents of South Shore and neighboring communities will face once the Center is completed in an estimated four years.
He said there will be continuous conversation about how the coming projects and finished plans will work for the community.
“If we do this well, not only will this be a world-recognized institution where people not just from around Chicago, not just around the country, but the world can come teach and work and learn from each other, but it’s also going to be a transformational project for this community,” said Obama.
Obama proposed several ideas that are scheduled to take place either before or after the creation of the Center: recommend the closing of Cornell Ave. to produce a continuous parcel of land that would benefit both the Center and the Museum of Science and Industry; create programming beginning this year to benefit communities immediately; launch a training and apprenticeship program for youth in the Center’s surrounding neighborhoods to develop a pipeline of workers who can be hired to help construct the Center; work with the City of Chicago’s Department of Transportation and the State of Illinois’ Department of Transportation to ensure commute times for local residents are not increased beyond a few minutes once the Center is opened; exceed the mandatory number of minority- and women-owned businesses that work on and with the Center; and transform Jackson Park to more closely resemble Millennium Park.
At the 71st St. entrance of the South Shore Cultural Center, Sharon Hibbler, a South Shore resident, sat on a bus bench hoping to get a glimpse of Obama. She and two other women didn’t have tickets to the invitation-only affair, but they didn’t mind waiting outside. All three women were optimistic that the Obama Presidential Center will revitalize South Shore and Woodlawn.
“I think it’s going to be a benefit to the neighborhood,” Hibbler said. “I think he made it clear and understandable of what’s going to take place.”
Janice Hayes, another South Shore resident, said, “I feel very proud. I love it. He needs to be honored just like anybody else. I want the library to have everything that belongs to him.”
Obama spoke candidly about his expectations for minority- and women-owned businesses being included in the Center—a growing concern that has been expressed in community town hall meetings in Woodlawn and South Shore.
“I also want to point out, again, as someone who lives here, you know that you can cook the numbers to make anything look like equal participation…that’s just true,” said Obama. “Beyond whatever targets are set, what I and Michelle intend to do is [to] make sure we are working with credible folks to say, ‘How do we maximize contractors and vendors within the community?’”
Obama was candid when it came to choosing between quality and ethnicity in some situations.
“I will be honest, if we have to choose between someone who is not a minority- or women- owned vendor, who does really great work and is going to make this whole thing terrific and somebody who is raggedy, we will choose the folks who do the work,” said Obama.
He went on to say that he created an Inclusion Council to address all matters of diversity hiring, including putting pressure on businesses that they select to work with about their training practices and who is included in training.
In terms of jobs, Obama projected—according to studies he’s received—there will be 200-300 permanent jobs working in/around the Center, and 1,400-1,500 jobs will be produced during the construction phase. He said for the South Side alone, “80 percent of the construction benefits and hires will be here in this area.”
In recent weeks, the Obama Foundation announced at a press conference held at the DuSable Museum of African American History that architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien will be charged with designing the Center.
In a statement released by Williams, Tsien and Dina Griffin stated their desire to create a “community asset” that would both empower and inspire the public.
“The Obamas were clear that they wanted the Center to seamlessly integrate into the Park and the community and include diverse public spaces. Our hope is that this design for the Center interspersed with Jackson Park; honors the legacy of Olmsted and Vaux; and unlocks potential and opportunity for Jackson Park, the South Side and the City of Chicago.”