CHICAGO (CBS) — Aldermen overwhelmingly voted Wednesday to approve the $500 million Obama Presidential Center project, moving the Obama Foundation one step closer to breaking ground in Jackson Park.
The City Council voted 47-1 to approve the various zoning changes that would be required to build the center in Jackson Park.
The Obama Foundation was quick to praise the council for its vote.
“We thank Mayor Emanuel and the City Council for their support as we take another significant step forward in bringing the Obama Presidential Center to Chicago’s South Side. Following today’s vote, we remain committed to continuing the conversation with our neighbors and community across Chicago on how we can build an OPC that fulfills President and Mrs. Obama’s vision: a museum that tells their story and celebrates the people and events that led to this historic presidency, a gathering place that benefits the entire community, and a home for civic engagement that inspires visitors to create positive change,” Obama Foundation CEO David Simas said.
Ald. David Moore (17th) was the only alderman to vote against the project, citing concerns about infrastructure costs that would be borne by the city. Moore lamented that he has trouble getting funding to repave crumbling streets in his ward, but aldermen are willing to commit to $175 million for infrastructure costs for the Obama Center without first securing the necessary funding.
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) said the Obama library would benefit the city for “hundreds of years.”
The council’s vote is not the final hurdle the project must clear. The site also is under federal review, because Jackson Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the plan would require closing major streets. The plan for the center calls for closing the stretch of Cornell Drive that runs through Jackson Park, and diverting traffic to Stony Island Avenue, and widening Lake Shore Drive.
The federal review could take months to complete.
Opponents also have filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the project, arguing it should not be built in a park because it won’t be a true presidential library.
Protect Our Parks Inc. accuses organizers of the planned library at Jackson Park on the city’s South Side of pulling an “institutional bait and switch” by changing the true nature of the center from a presidential library to a center that doesn’t house historic papers.
The Obama Foundation has said it will host a digital archive of President Barack Obama’s records, but that paper documents will be stored elsewhere.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called that lawsuit “frivolous,” claiming the opponents “don’t understand the 21st century.”
Many residents on the South Side have demanded a “community benefits agreement,” a written agreement that would outline commitments from the Obama Foundation to protect the neighborhoods around the center.
Jawanza Malone, a representative of the Obama Library Community Benefits Coalition, has said the foundation should make commitments to prevent South Side residents from being pushed out of their neighborhoods by rising property values and higher property taxes.
“There needs to be 30 percent affordable housing for new construction and rehab, there needs to be independent monitoring over the hiring that’s taking place, and there needs to be a property tax freeze,” he said last week.
So far, the Obama Foundation has resisted calls for a formal community benefits agreement, instead stating they are confident the complex will create more jobs on the South Side, and spur other business and growth opportunities in the area.
The Obama Foundation hopes to win final federal approval and begin construction of the project by the end of the year.