January 12, 2015

Community wants answers before Obama library

Tensions ran high at the Jackson Park Advisory Council (JPAC) meeting yesterday, where community members addressed the University’s bid for the Barack Obama presidential library on the South Side. The meeting included a short presentation by Vice President of Civic Engagement Derek Douglas and Senior Associate Vice President of Community Engagement Sonya Malunda, followed by a heated Q&A session.

Malunda explained the three main components of the proposed presidential library, which are an archival library, a museum, and a location in which the Obama Foundation can continue its work in various fields. She also reviewed some of the benefits that the University claims the library would bring to the community, including the addition of almost 3,300 local construction jobs, 800,000 visitors per year, improved public transportation, and additional educational opportunities.

Afterwards, Douglas emphasized that the library “should go where it can be an economic catalyst,” which precludes Hyde Park as an option in favor of other South Side neighborhoods. He stressed that it should aim to avoid the displacement of large numbers of people, and that lost park land would be compensated for by the city of Chicago.

The biggest concern of JPAC members and other participants was the use of park land as sites for the construction of the library. JPAC Vice Presidency Fran Vandevoort of the Washington Park Conservancy said that both Washington Park and Jackson Park are landmarks and that the site proposed in Jackson Park overlaps with one of the largest arboretums in Chicago.

“We don’t need 25 acres…. Where is the University’s responsibility as a good neighbor?” Cassandra Francis, President of Friends of the Parks, said. She also pointed out that the Kennedy Presidential Library only takes up a 10-acre plot, whereas the University is looking for between 20 and 30 acres.

Other questions posed by community members concerned the possibility of proposing other sites around the South Side, such as land already owned by the University around Garfield Boulevard, or previously proposed sites around 79th Street and 22nd Street. Douglas replied that these areas were either already slated for previously planned development, not large enough, or had already been rejected by the Obama Foundation in other library bids. He added throughout the meeting that the University wanted to give the Foundation options for the specific location of the library within the sites proposed.

Not everyone felt that placing the library in a park would be an injustice to the community, however.

“It would be a travesty if that presidential library were not here in the South Side of Chicago…. [For building on park land] the bar should be high, standards should be high and this meets that bar,” one attendee said.

Other community members brought up issues ranging from community representation in the bidding process to the gentrification of African American neighborhoods in the area surrounding Jackson Park and the relevance of the University’s 89 official letters of support in light of the new information regarding the use of park land.

“The Obamas are getting the information that they’re being given and I don’t know if that represents the community,” said another participant in a heated exchange with Douglas.

The Obama Foundation will decide on a winning bid in the next couple of months.