- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Back in his community-organizing days, Barack Obama would have been the one fighting to save historic public parks from developers. Today, the 44th president finds himself on the other side of the underserved communities he once championed.

Grass-roots activists, conservationists and academics on Chicago’s South Side say the Obama Presidential Center, as currently planned, does not do enough to benefit neighborhoods badly in need of economic revitalization. The Obama Foundation rejected a proposed Washington Park site that would have made the center easily accessible through public transportation, opting instead for a lush Jackson Park location that overlooks Lake Michigan.

Charles Lipson, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, which sits just blocks away from the center’s future location, said Mr. Obama is “indulging himself” by building “a monument along the lakefront, where it will have a lot less positive impact than it could have had elsewhere.”

“Any community organizer worthy of the name would have put this museum on the west side of Washington Park, which desperately needs the economic revitalization and already has extensive public transportation in place, as well as easy access to the Dan Ryan [Expressway],” Mr. Lipson said. “That location, which President Obama rejected, would have been an unambiguous boon to the community and to Chicago.

“Instead,” Mr. Lipson continued, “the former president chose a much fancier, high-profile site on the lake, one with virtually no public transportation.”

Mr. Lipson is one of more than 100 faculty at the University of Chicago who signed a public letter asking Mr. Obama to move his library.

In its current location, the Obama Presidential Center will not provide “promised development or economic benefits” to the local community, the professors wrote in the letter, and will cost taxpayers as much as $100 million in infrastructure renovations to the surrounding area.

The project will also annex more than 20 acres from Jackson Park, an urban park on the National Register of Historic Places designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architects who designed Central Park.

“We urge the Obama Foundation to explore alternative sites on the South Side that could be developed with more economic benefits, better public transportation, and less cost to taxpayers,” the professors wrote.

“We would be pleased to support the Obama Center if the plan genuinely promoted economic development in our neighborhoods and respected our precious public urban parks.”

Mr. Obama served as a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004.

Following the release of the letter, the Obama Foundation reached an agreement Monday to move a 450-space, above-ground parking garage below ground. The garage was initially slated to take up five acres on the historic Midway Plaisance, another part of the Chicago park system.

A spokesperson for the Obama Foundation said the center has earned the support of “thousands of people in our community and across the city who have weighed in at public meetings, online, and in residential meetings around the area.”

The center will “bring upwards of 760,000 people to the South Side every year” and “strengthen the economic climate in the region.”

“While we don’t expect everyone to agree with every element of the plan, we look forward to working with people across the community and the city to make the most of the opportunity to create a global destination that will showcase the South Side to the world,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Despite such claims, a coalition of eight community groups on the South Side is demanding the Obama Foundation sign an agreement guaranteeing neighborhood involvement in the development and maintenance of the Obama Center.

The Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition says “low-income, working-, and middle-class communities” will be “directly impacted by the development of the Obama Presidential Center.”

The coalition wants the Obama Foundation to provide job-training programs for local residents, support minority-owned business development, improvements to neighborhood schools and affordable housing and property tax relief for longtime residents.

Member groups include the Black Youth Project 100, the Bronzeville Regional Collective and Southside Together Organizing for Power.

The Obama Presidential Center is being financed with private contributions, but the center was initially sold to the public as Mr. Obama’s presidential library, which would have been administered by the federal National Archives.

Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit, said the Chicago park system is the only one outside of New York designed by Olmsted and Vaux, and is “terribly important as a designed park system.”

“We remain steadfast in our opposition to the confiscation of any of the parkland designed by Olmsted and Vaux,” Mr. Birnbaum said.

Mr. Lipson said the dispute over the center, like the objects and exhibits it will house, is a “deeply, personally revealing” reflection of the 44th president.

“It won’t be a disaster,” he said. “It really won’t. But it would have been so much better if the president had had the courage of his convictions to try to actually revitalize a neighborhood that needs it. To take a little off of what he could get for himself.”

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