Crusader Staff Report
When the Chicago City Council approved the Obama Library on Wednesday, May 23, one councilman noticeably absent was veteran Alderman Leslie Hairston.
The majority of the city’s 50 aldermen were present to vote 47-1 to give the Obama Foundation the green light to build the $500 million Presidential Center and Library on 19 acres in Jackson Park. The vote came after dozens of protestors turned up at City Hall hoping to convince the Council to reject a proposal that was widely expected to be approved.
The Council also approved the transfer of 19.3 acres from the city to the Chicago Park District.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a statement one day before the Council approved the center.
“The Obama Presidential Center will be a powerful economic, educational and cultural engine for Chicago. It will be a living testament to the historic life and legacy of Barack and Michelle Obama, and a beacon of hope to inspire young people from all walks of life who will follow in their formidable footsteps. With today’s vote, the vision for the Obama Presidential Center came closer to becoming a reality on Chicago’s South Side.”
The decision is the latest victory for the Obama Foundation, whose plans were quickly approved by the city’s Zoning Committee a day before, guaranteeing at least $175 million in public infrastructure improvements needed to accommodate the center. The city has not yet secured those funds. At Wednesday’s City Council meeting Alderman David Moore (17th Ward) cast the only no vote saying he’s not sure about where the city would get the $175 million in public infrastructure funds tied to the project.
Still, many of the aldermen praised the facility and said it would be good for the city.
“Who turns down a president? Who does that? We cannot and should not be fighting this project for one of our [native] sons,” said Alderman Michelle Harris (8th Ward).
The decision was a critical hurdle for Obama Foundation officials, who needed the city’s approval to move forward on their plans to start building the facility in 2019. The facility still must secure a long-term lease with the city. The center must also get federal approval because Jackson Park is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The controversial facility will impact the predominately Black neighborhoods of Woodlawn and South Shore. Hairston was there in 2016 when the Obama Foundation announced its plans to build the facility in Jackson Park. Hairston was not there to vote on a significant proposal that has tremendous potential to affect the future of residents in Hairston’s 5th Ward.
One of Hairston’s staff members told the Crusader that she was out of town and unable to attend Wednesday’s council meeting. In a letter read aloud by Alderman Roderick Sawyer, Hairston said the facility will “change the lives of families for generations,” and that it will be a “win for our neighborhoods that need so much.”
The facility is a thorny political issue as Hairston and Alderman Sophia King (4th Ward) seek reelection next year, along with the rest of the city’s aldermen.
The Community Benefits Agreement Coalition wanted the Council to delay the vote until an ordinance was in place that would set aside 30 percent of new and rehabbed housing for low income and working families. They also want a freeze on property taxes for long-time residents, and to independently monitor hiring.
The Obama Center plans also include closing Cornell Drive and Marquette Road. Southbound traffic from Cornell would be rerouted to Stony Island Avenue. Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island would be widened and additional stoplights and barrier walls would go up on Hayes Drive.