Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based design journalist who focuses on landscape architecture and architecture.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to step down may give critics of the library plan more time and room to negotiate.
Public safety, the city’s pension load, and public schools were the major issues haunting Rahm Emanuel’s assumed re-election bid earlier this month, all of which were upended by his surprise announcement that he wouldn’t throw his hat into the ring for a third term. Given the power that the office of Chicago’s mayor has traditionally held and its history of machine-style politics, nearly every issue hinges on which way “the man on five” (there has only been one woman mayor) leans.
That includes the fate of the Obama Presidential Center, to be installed in Jackson Park on the South Side, near where President Obama taught at the University of Chicago and began his political career.
The park came into play when the University of Chicago pitched it in 2014 to the Obama Foundation, despite not owning it. (It’s owned by the Chicago Park District.) Meanwhile, the university (which backed the winning bid) owns many parcels nearby, including 11 acres across the street from Washington Park, another prospective site. Emanuel has been one of the plan’s biggest boosters, second only in power and sway to the former president.
Emanuel’s exit from Chicago politics was largely a product of concerted efforts from grassroots organizers across the city, and especially in its predominantly African-American South and West Sides. On the issue of the Obama library, these activists are joined by a slate of preservation advocates with political capital that grassroots organizers in poor, disinvested communities don’t often enjoy.
Now that Emanuel is stepping aside, critics of the park deal have more room to speak out in favor of a community benefits agreement (CBA), which they feel the Obama Foundation owes to the struggling South Side neighborhoods where it’s setting up shop.
Nearly everyone in Chicago is in favor of establishing the Obama library on the South Side. But now, “There’ll be more room for dissent, and more people in Chicago generally willing to speak their mind without fearing the Emanuel administration,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, which has opposed the seizure of parkland. “More voices will feel free to ask more questions and not automatically rubber-stamp everything.”
It’s not yet a done deal. The city and the Obama Foundation still have to formalize a land-use agreement for the property, which is likely to happen next month. There’s also a federal review process stemming from the National Environmental Policy Act that could hold things up, but is less connected to local politics. The foundation currently expects a groundbreaking in 2019. Emanuel’s term ends in May.
Spread over 20 acres on Jackson Park’s western edge near Lake Michigan, the current plan for the presidential center is headlined by a museum tower and low-slung library by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. It’s an intensely landscape-driven plan, with green roofs, rich topography, and a public plaza, to be designed by landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Site Design Group and Living Habitats. While neighborhood activists are wary of the seizure of parkland and gentrification, preservation advocates object to altering Jackson Park so heavily (it was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and was the site of the 1893 Columbia Exposition), for fear of losing its sense of pastoral isolation.
There’s little definitive evidence that gentrification is displacing many people from the Woodlawn neighborhood where the Obama Presidential Center will be. But real-estate values in the area spiked 23 percent in the first six months of 2017, and there are lots and homes selling for more than $400,000 dollars, despite Obama saying that the area wouldn’t see gentrification until his daughter Malia has children.
Several candidates for mayor (of a crowded field of about a dozen so far) are advocating against the plan and for a CBA.
Ja’Mal Green, who gained a public reputation as one of the city’s foremost Black Lives Matter activists, is one candidate whose views align with the preservation community. He supports moving the Obama library out of Jackson Park and signing a CBA, his most pressing concern in the matter. With Emanuel leaving the scene, “everything changes,” he said. “We can’t allow the Obama Foundation to come in and get everything that they want. We have to hold them accountable as well.”
Green says that Emanuel’s exit will likely push Obama to intervene in the race and anoint a candidate who promises to keep plans for his presidential center on track (which would almost certainly not be Green).
Emanuel’s departure also gives hope to critics pushing for a more open process. Under Emanuel’s leadership, the city and the Obama Foundation have been tight-lipped about how the plan to hand over acres of Jackson Park was formed, preferring to talk about it mostly in carefully stage-managed events. (At a panel discussion featuring several critics of the plan at the University of Chicago, for example, no one from the Obama Foundation bothered to attend.) And there’s lingering distrust from when the city’s parks department cut down 40 trees in Jackson Park after promising that they’d refrain from doing so until proper approvals and permits had been secured.
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said, “It’s our hope that [Emanuel’s departure] will encourage a more robust conversation to occur, and maybe open up some of these documents and items that have been withheld from the public, especially the bid package.”
To date, whatever the University of Chicago offered the Obama Foundation to bring the presidential center to the South Side has remained a secret. But a lawsuit filed by the Protect Our Parks non-profit against the city and the Park District might force this document into the open. Irizarry contends that the Park District, although autonomous on paper, is largely controlled by the mayor, and that one outcome of a new (potentially weaker) mayor could be a more independent parks department.
The Obama Foundation is downplaying any potential disruption to the process. Asked about Emanuel’s departure, a spokesperson released a statement reading:
We thank Mayor Emanuel for his steadfast leadership and support for the Center and look forward to continuing to work with him, the City Council, community members, and our neighbors in the coming weeks and months on our shared vision for a project that will generate billions of dollars of economic opportunity, help reconnect and revitalize Jackson Park, and serve as a reminder to young visitors—from around the city and from around the world—that their potential is limitless.
A new mayor could also degrade support for the current plan in Chicago’s city council. So far, the plan has strong aldermanic support (in May, the council voted 47-1 in favor of building the library in the park.) However, aldermanic positions can shift according to the mayor in office.
Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, is not sure a change in mayor will dramatically alter the library plan, but hopes it can create momentum for a CBA, as incumbent aldermen get put on the spot in advance of February’s election. In a new political reality freed from Emanuel, he said, “you have candidates questioning why incumbents aren’t supporting a community benefits agreement.”
Getting a new mayor to push the Obama Foundation to accept a CBA is probably the most likely outcome of this month’s decision. The benefits agreement that activists are advocating for outlines demands related to economic development, education, employment, housing, transportation, and sustainability (including replacement of lost parkland). Many of these goals seem modest (ensuring that nearby schools have libraries and “adequate heating and cooling systems”), while other are more ambitious, like rent support for residents, property-tax freezes, additional affordable housing, and a community trust fund.
President Obama and the Obama Foundation have rejected the CBA, saying that if they consent to one set of concessions, they will be stuck on a treadmill of endless demands. The foundation has promised to meet a few of the demands, but these aren’t legally binding agreements. Most galling to activists is the fact that a CBA seems like just the sort of thing Obama would have pushed for as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.
“It’s supposed to be a trade-off,” said Troy LaRaviere, a candidate for mayor and former public-school teacher who is in favor of a CBA and open to reevaluating the Jackson Park site. “If you give public land, you should get back a public benefit in return. The site would be far more appealing to folks that might be against it if the elements of a community benefits agreement [were] there. If they’re not there, they feel like they’re giving away everything for nothing.”