Former president Barack Obama has been playing defense in his adopted hometown over the plans for his Presidential Center
Former president Barack Obama has been playing defense in his adopted hometown over the plans for his Presidential Center Nam Y. Huh/AP

After decades of aggressive “urban renewal” by rich institutions in low-income communities, Columbia’s 1968 protests ushered in an era of community benefits agreements. Why won’t the Obama Center sign one in Chicago?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the storied occupation of Columbia University, during which student and neighborhood activists prevented the construction of a functionally segregated gym in a public park in Harlem.

It was a major inflection point in urban history: university-driven urban renewal paused; anchor institutions realized they needed to approach their relationships with their low-income neighbors with more sensitivity and respect. But friction between major institutions and neighboring communities has ramped up in recent decades—from South Los Angeles to West Philadelphia to Chicago—caused in part by private police forces, rapid gentrification, and unrelenting development that is perceived as insufficiently involving the surrounding community.

This long, fraught legacy hangs heavily over the Obama Presidential Center (OPC), a $500 million development slated to be built in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side. Supporters of the project include the University of Chicago and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, as well as the Obama Foundation, which is executing the design and construction. These stakeholders have been criticized by community activists for downplaying neighbors’ concerns about gentrification and refusing to negotiate a community benefits agreement.

Although most critics say that few, if any South Side residents are against the Center locating in the area, many are unhappy with how the project is being executed. The OPC’s team has refused a legally binding community benefits agreement (CBA) requested by a coalition of community organizations; another group recently sued to halt the project, citing an improper use of public lands; and over 100 University of Chicago faculty members signed an open letter supporting the CBA coalition and criticizing the plans for leaving taxpayers on the hook for more $175 million in transportation improvements. Meanwhile, the OPC continues to move closer to realization, recently winning decisive approvals from the city’s Plan Commission and Board of Aldermen.

As the planning process continues, the Obama Foundation will try to win over these dissatisfied factions in the South Side; the neighborhood where President Obama formed his political identity, and where his wife grew up. But as it stands now, the most visible, permanent symbol of the nation’s first black president is in danger of being seen as yet another institutional development project that neglects the needs of existing residents, rather than a source of pride and prosperity.

A mid-20th century government-funded, university-led ‘urban renewal’ boom

It’s difficult to overstate the trauma of 20th century urban renewal on Chicago’s South Side, and in low-income, university-adjacent neighborhoods nationwide. In the 1950s, the University of Chicago was at the vanguard of urban renewal, initiating planning and development practices that other urban universities would subsequently follow, according to LaDale Winling, a professor of history at Virginia Tech, and the author of Building the Ivory Tower. By the late ‘50s, however, federal urban renewal funds were running low in Chicago. In response, the University of Chicago led a political lobbying effort of 14 elite, urban universities including the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and the University of California system that resulted in the Housing Act of 1959, which unlocked new funds for universities to pursue major urban renewal projects.

As universities remade their neighborhoods during the 1960s, the collateral damage to unaffiliated residents often was severe. The University City Science Center in Philadelphia, a collaborative redevelopment by Penn, Drexel, and other educational institutions, resulted in the displacement of more than 2,600 people in the late 1960s, 78 percent of whom were black. Columbia displaced approximately 9,600 residents in Morningside Heights and nearby areas throughout the 1960s, 85 percent of whom were black or Puerto Rican, according to Stefan Bradley, a professor of African-American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, and a scholar of university history.

In Chicago’s Hyde Park and Kenwood neighborhoods, a University of Chicago-led urban renewal program displaced more than 4,000 families, or approximately 12,000 individuals, between 1959 and 1970, 58 percent of which were families of color, according to a University of Richmond study. The displaced black families were less likely to return, altering the racial composition of the neighborhood.

By the late 1960s, urban renewal had become broadly unpopular: “By this time James Baldwin has this famous formulation that's oft quoted, that urban renewal is 'Negro Removal,'” Winling noted. And this rang particularly true around elite universities. So in the spring of 1968, critics had little patience when Columbia began constructing a gym with separate and unequally sized facilities for Harlem residents and students and faculty in Morningside Park, a steep hillside that served as a physical and metaphorical barrier between the campus and the nation’s most famous black neighborhood.

Protestors at Columbia University in 1968 (Jacob Harris/AP)

In protest of the plans, as well as Columbia’s involvement in Vietnam War planning, students and some neighborhood activists occupied numerous campus buildings for six days, culminating in a “police riot” that left 132 students, 12 faculty members, and four police officers injured. In the end, however, the protesters largely achieved their goals: The gym plans were scrapped, and the university discontinued its involvement with a military think tank.

Columbia was not the only university to play host to protests over urban renewal in the late 1960s. The student occupation of Harvard’s University Hall in April 1969, was related, in part, to the institution’s plans to demolish low-income apartments in Roxbury for a medical center expansion. The following month, the national media trained its eyes on UC Berkeley, where student activists were violently suppressed by police for protesting the construction of dorms and offices in People’s Park. At both universities, students successfully prevented the administrations from following through on their expansion plans, just as Columbia students had a year earlier. (People’s Park is being threatened once again, as university officials see the land as an important site for desperately needed student housing).

According to Winling, these campus protests dampened the appetite for urban renewal and spurred reforms in terms of how universities dealt with their communities. “In many cases universities do become more sensitive to their local community—not fully sensitive, but somewhat more,” Winling said. “They realize that managing community relations is a far more important part of their job if they want to expand.”

A new era of increased consultation of surrounding communities

Increased community input was paramount for Columbia’s new campus in Manhattanville, a former light-industrial district half a mile north of the university’s main campus. Planning for the expansion included a 40-member community advisory council, and permanent staff members dedicated to community engagement. These moves were part of a conscientious effort to indicate that Columbia administrators had absorbed the lessons of 1968: ''I have done everything I can to put the ghost of the gym behind us,'' Columbia University President Lee Bollinger told The New York Times in 2004, when the university began to outline its plans. ''Columbia is a different neighbor now.”

The Manhattanville project has been beset by controversy over the past decade, particularly surrounding its use of eminent domain—the seizure of private land for the “public good”—a classic urban renewal era practice. However, the university does appear to be putting its money where its mouth is, agreeing to contribute more than $100 million in community benefits as part of the construction of its new campus.

Other anchor institutions in low-income neighborhoods have done similarly: The University of Southern California (USC) contributed $20 million for affordable housing as part of its new University Village project, and years earlier, nearby Staples Center hammered out a CBA with more than 30 local organizations that has yielded as much as $150 million for the community. While imperfect, these CBAs provided a sense of assurance that neighbors’ needs are at least being considered.

In Chicago, activists point to the Staples Center CBA as a model for the Obama Presidential Center. Its combination of local job guarantees, funds for affordable housing, and commitments to invest in neighborhood amenities could act as armor against the iniquities of the past. But so far, the Obama Foundation has balked at the prospect. “We're not like a stadium that is there to make money and extract resources out of the community… We are here to put resources into the community,” said Michael Strautmanis, vice president of civic engagement for the Obama Foundation.

The problem, according to community activists, is that neighbors don’t have enough of a say as to what those resources are, or adequate protection from the side-effects of those investments. “This being Chicago, we've been promised all sorts of things,” said Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and one of the leading advocates for a CBA. “At best those promises have been marginally delivered, but typically there's just nothing,” he said, about past verbal commitments made to the South Side community. Malone views the CBA as an “enforcement mechanism” to hold the OPC accountable for following through on all of its positive promises, and mitigating its unintended effects.

What does the Obama Presidential Center owe its community?

Many events in the first two years of the library planning process—to say nothing of the cruel legacy of urban renewal—have given South Siders reason to be wary. Since the announcement that Obama would build his presidential library on the South Side, with support from the University of Chicago, the latter unveiled plans for two new developments nearby: a 1,200 bed student housing complex and a boutique hotel. The years-long fight to get the university to reopen an adult Level-1 trauma center, which is key to saving the lives of nearby gunshot victims, is fresh in the minds of activists who remember how hard it can be to extract community benefits from major institutions in Chicago.

While the university is not actively involved in the development of the OPC, it did help spearhead the bid process that brought it to the South Side and is a major donor. For Malone, the hotel and student housing complex “confirmed suspicions that this wasn't an altruistic move by the university, but is an attempt to leverage the legacy of the first black president of the United States to continue to beef up the university's endowment.”

The former president’s rhetoric has not helped build trust, either. At a community meeting in February, Obama appeared to dismiss residents’ concerns about gentrification. “We’ve got such a long way to go in terms of economic development before you’re even going to start seeing the prospect of significant gentrification,” he said. “Malia’s kids might have to worry about that.”

To Malone, Obama’s comments were so far afield that he suspects the president is following talking points set forth by the university and city hall. “If those were his true feelings—and I want to underscore, ‘if’—he's completely divorced from reality,” Malone said. The real estate analytics company Redfin named Woodlawn, the neighborhood closest to the library site, the third “hottest” neighborhood in the U.S. for the first half of 2017, with median home values increasing over 18 percent. Major provisions in the proposed community benefits agreement are designed to protect against rising home values, including a freeze on property taxes within a two-mile radius of the project, and new inclusionary zoning rules. Neighborhood activists hope to enshrine these provisions in law by getting the city council to ratify the agreement as a community benefits ordinance.

Obama’s stated reasoning for rejecting a CBA is unrelated to neighbors’ concerns about gentrification and displacement. “The concern I have with respect to the community benefit agreements in this situation is that it's not inclusive enough because I would then be signing with who?” he asked via video conference at a community meeting in October. “What particular organizations would end up speaking for everybody in that community? I'm not an outsider here. I know the neighborhood. I know that the minute you start saying, well we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who is getting jobs and contracts and this, that, and the other, next thing I know I've got 20 organizations that are coming out of the woodwork, some of them that I've never heard of before.”

In fact, the OPC has already made strong commitments to contract with mostly locally owned, minority businesses and laborers. The main contractor for the project is a consortium of four local, African-American owned firms and one national firm, with the former holding majority decision-making power. Just before the Plan Commission vote on its approval of the plans, Mayor Emanuel announced that the Presidential Center would also include a new branch of the Chicago public library system, one of many spaces in the center that will hold community programming. Overall, the Foundation claims the project will infuse $3.1 billion into the local economy.

Supporters and critics of the current OPC plans often seem to be talking past each other, however, with boosters emphasizing jobs and economic opportunity, and CBA activists focused on housing and planning in the adjacent neighborhoods. “Some people don’t know a win when they’ve got a win,” Leslie Hairston, the alderman who represents the area surrounding Jackson Park, told the Chicago Tribune. “We want jobs … we want opportunities for young people to thrive in our communities.”

A model of the proposed Presidential Center (The Obama Foundation)

Instead of a CBA, Hairston has said she is working on a neighborhood stabilization plan. According to Strautmanis, many of the ideas being discussed in a potential neighborhood stabilization plan are similar to those in the proposed CBA, including a freeze on property taxes, and commitments that vacant land in the adjoining neighborhoods be developed as affordable housing.

Strautmanis said the Foundation is open to all of these ideas, but it cannot spearhead them. “Making sure that there's the right kind of mix of housing so that low-income people who want to stay here can stay here...that is not something that the Obama Foundation can do alone,” he said. “We don't control zoning. We don't control the housing market. We don't control any land.” (The foundation will lease the park site from the city).

Yet these statements seem to understate the influence the former president has on his former hometown, which happens to be led by his former chief of staff. If Obama and his foundation took an affirmative stance on the provisions laid out in the CBA, or a potential neighborhood stabilization plan, it’s hard to imagine anyone would be willing to oppose them. “It’s easy to go after the University, which has always had a horrible track record. It's probably easier to go after the mayor and the City of Chicago, given their track record. But it's extremely difficult to go after the president,” Malone said, referring to Obama.

Urban history is full of lessons on how to navigate this situation. Anchor institutions have done well to acknowledge, rather than dismiss, a community’s concerns. And they have signaled their goodwill with binding agreements, and, for better or worse, large sums of money that provide a semblance of justice for very poor people living near unimaginably rich institutions. The Foundation is well-positioned on the latter point, too, with perhaps the world’s most skilled fundraiser at its helm. The OPC has already received 47 donations of at least $1 million from the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates and George Lucas.   

“I think [Obama] recognizes that today because of the tough economic times this community has been in, because of the historic disinvestment… people might be cynical about a large institution coming into their neighborhood,” Strautmanis said.

Barack Obama, the 44th president and the first black president of the United States, has made clear what he plans to do about it: Ask for trust. But would 1986-era Barack Obama, the smart, scrappy, ambitious South Side-Chicago community organizer, think that was enough?

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece stated that a boutique hotel and student housing complex were unveiled by the University of Chicago months after the Obama Foundation pledged to build its Presidential Center on the South Side of Chicago. In fact, the Foundation made that announcement in 2015, and the hotel and student housing complex were announced in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

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