Beyond The Headlines: Meet The Groups Demanding A Benefits Agreement From The Obama Foundation
Mattie Butler was a South Side community organizer well before Barack Obama arrived in Chicago.
As executive director of Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors (WECAN), Butler helped launch an ambitious series of self-help programs in Woodlawn, including job training, housing cooperatives, youth educational programs and a tenants rights organization over a 36-year career. But she never expected to be in a fight with the Obama Presidential Center over the future of her community.
“Property taxes in this neighborhood rose 23% in the past year. If this upward trend continues, senior homeowners will be forced to move out of Woodlawn and won’t enjoy the benefits of having the Obama Center nearby,” Butler said.
“If we aren’t here, the benefits from the center will go to the people who move in after us.”
WECAN is part of a broader coalition, The Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, seeking a legally binding community benefits agreement tied to the Obama Presidential Center. This coalition wants assurances from the Obama Foundation that the promised positive impact from the center’s construction will be shared with the surrounding community.
The coalition identified four common goals it wants to see in a benefits agreement: access to and preservation of affordable housing, strengthening neighborhood schools, creating and supporting black-owned businesses, and requiring jobs near the center be set aside for residents in the surrounding communities. Some groups also advocate for a property tax freeze for certain homeowners near the center.
So far, the Obama Foundation — including Obama himself — has rejected the idea of a benefits agreement, claiming it is not some overzealous developer seeking to profit from disinvested neighborhoods. But the coalition members who spoke with Bisnow for this article agree there have been too many instances in Chicago of not holding the city and developers accountable for the promises of benefits they claim their projects will bring.
The coalition’s individual groups each have different reasons for seeking an agreement, but the campaign is broad enough, and the Obama Center’s promise bright enough, to unite them.
“This coalition is democracy in action. This is an opportunity for all to show what community development looks like and how strength in numbers, eyeing a common goal, can positively impact a single development," Kenwood Oakland Community Organization’s Jawanza Malone said.
The Core Debate: Displacement Of People And Land
Malone said he has been burned by officials reneging on their promises before: In the early 1990s, KOCO and other community groups worked with the city and federal officials to bring empowerment zones to distressed neighborhoods across the city. Once those zones were established, the groups were shut out of negotiations to determine the zones’ boundaries, Malone said.
Malone took that lesson to heart. KOCO and other community groups successfully lobbied the city to approve a benefits agreement as part of Chicago’s failed attempt to land the 2016 Summer Olympics. That campaign lasted two-and-a-half years and when the Emanuel administration announced it was courting the Obama Center, Malone saw parallels between the center and the Olympic bid. He studied community pushback from other presidential libraries and found a common denominator.
“When large-scale developments happen, displacement is always a side effect,” Malone said.
In College Station, Texas, residents sparred with Texas A&M University over plans to move a pig farm closer to them in order to build the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library. Officials in Little Rock, Arkansas, invoked eminent domain to demolish old warehouses to make way for the Clinton Library. Both libraries successfully fended off a legal challenge. Malone grew concerned of a similar outcome with the Obama Center.
Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry has repeatedly heard the promises from the Obama Foundation and city officials of the transformative power the $375M center will have on Chicago’s South Side. But words are not enough for her, especially since she has personal experience with displacement. She and her husband lived near The 606 and saw their rent spike $450/month after the rails-to-trail project opened. This sped up their plans to buy a home.
“For a lot of families, that would be a death knell to living in a community,” Irizarry said.
Friends of the Park is one of the loudest voices opposing major new development in the area. In February 2015, the Chicago Park District approved a plan by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to cede 20 acres of parkland to the University of Chicago, if the school’s bid for the Obama Presidential Center was successful. Friends of the Parks consistently opposed the use of parkland for the Obama Center’s construction — it wanted to see the center built on vacant land across from Washington Park. Irizarry said the increased job and educational opportunities, and infrastructure improvements the Obama Center promises, would be as impactful if it was built on land that has been vacant for years, while maintaining parkland amenities.
“The city often pitches megaprojects like this as the only way to fix a park. But these projects tend to be revenue generators that are not geared to local residents. It’s a false dichotomy: We either let a park fall into disrepair or we make it an amusement park,” Irizarry said.
If the coalition cannot legally stop the center from being built in Jackson Park, it wants to see an equal amount of nearby land returned to the public.
“Whatever amenities are being lost, replace them, since public land is being used for it,” Irizarry said.
Butler said a property tax freeze for Woodlawn senior homeowners would prevent them from having to sell their homes or give time to establish transfer of properties to other family members. WECAN is also working to preserve affordable housing in Woodlawn. It recently sold two affordable housing properties in East Woodlawn to the Preservation of Affordable Housing Chicago. WECAN and POAH have a long-standing relationship, and Butler said her group was instrumental in bringing POAH to Woodlawn to redevelop the former Grove Parc housing project site into a mix of market-rate, affordable and public housing.
The Debate Is Not A Referendum On Obama
Irizarry does not find her respect for Obama and the pursuit of a benefits agreement to be mutually exclusive. She had several similar conversations with the mayor’s office when Emanuel promised the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art would bring thousands of job opportunities to South Side residents.
"Knowing [Obama's] background as a community organizer and the fact that he came to us years ago to ask for advice as to creating more green space on Chicago’s south side, we would think he would expect the community to challenge him to give back to the community as he takes up public green space for his buildings. It’s not an issue of respect at all. But it is an issue of the broader context in which this whole project is situated — a city where we know better than to trust our government because we have a long history of lack of transparency and lack of proper vetting, and, all too often, outright corruption, leading to bad outcomes. This, in a city run by the man who used to be this president’s chief of staff.
“We must all be wary," Irizarry said.
So far, the Obama Foundation, the city and the University of Chicago have resisted calls to negotiate a benefits agreement. Malone said each has expressed privately and publicly there was no need for one.
“In Chicago, that's what you typically hear from developers. They don't want transparency or accountability. They want to build on their terms and it's unacceptable,” Malone said.
Irizarry said U of C has been particularly unwilling to pursue a benefits agreement.
“The university happily participated in not making land it owns near Washington Park available for this project. We believe the university, city and CTA [which owns 11 acres west of the Garfield Boulevard Green Line ‘L’ station] should have offered their own land for the project,” Irizarry said.
The Obama Foundation did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story. Bisnow reached out to University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer to be interviewed for this article. The university’s media relations team said Zimmer was unavailable and provided a statement saying the school has and will continue to work with all neighboring communities.