- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Activists and scholars will hold a symposium at the University of Chicago next month to encourage the Obama Foundation to reconsider its plans for the Obama Presidential Center.

W.J.T. Mitchell, a professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago, said the purpose of the symposium is to “reflect broadly on the numerous controversies that have surrounded the OPC plans.”

“We hope [to] get the Obama Foundation to slow down and reconsider the many problems with their plans, including its appropriation of historic public parkland and its refusal to put in writing its promises of financial benefits to the communities of the South Side,” Mr. Mitchell said in a statement. “That is why we have invited the Obama Foundation to send a representative to engage in the discussion. So far we have not received an answer from them.”

Mr. Mitchell is the co-author of a public letter signed by approximately 200 faculty members at the University of Chicago, where President Obama lectured for more than a decade, opposing construction of the center.

The faculty called plans for the center “socially regressive,” arguing the lush, lakefront location will not provide “promised development or economic benefits” to the surrounding area.

The Obama Foundation estimates the center will have an economic impact of $2.1 billion over 10 years.

The center has also drawn the ire of community organizers who take issue with the Obama Foundation’s unwillingness to sign a Community Benefits Agreement guaranteeing jobs and other benefits for residents on the South Side.

Conservationists object to the center’s takeover of nearly 20 acres from historic Jackson Park, a public park originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and Calvert Vaux, the landscape architects behind New York’s famed Central Park. Jackson Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The center will also cost taxpayers an estimated $100 million in renovations to the surrounding area.

Then came news that the Obama Presidential Center will not be the 44th president’s official library and will not house documents from the Obama White House.

Confirmed speakers for the March 7 symposium include Charles A. Birnbaum, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, a D.C.-based nonprofit; Naomi Davis, the founder of two Chicago grassroots organizations, Blacks in Green and the Bronzeville Regional Collective; Barbara Ransby, a professor of African American, gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois; Michael Sorkin, a prominent architect who heads the New York-based Michael Sorkin Studio; and Jacqueline Stewart, a professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago.

Mr. Mitchell said the Obama Foundation has “allowed little real public debate” about the presidential center to this point.

“Our symposium will be the first time that the discussion has moved to the campus of University of Chicago, where experts in many disciplines and representatives of numerous community organizations can engage,” Mr. Mitchell said. “As for the issues being decided, we not accept the common wisdom that says it is ‘done deal’ or ‘the ship has sailed.’ A done deal can be undone, and a ship that is headed in the wrong direction can change course.”

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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