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Obama Center Deal Hints At How Lightfoot Will Handle Escalating Gentrification Controversy

When the nonprofit Obama Foundation announced in 2016 it had selected Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side as the location for the Obama Presidential Center, its trustees promised the city’s first presidential library would eventually attract billions in new investment to the predominantly low- to moderate-income Woodlawn community surrounding the site near 60th Street.

Many neighborhood groups cried foul, worried it meant gentrification and displacement. The announcement also kicked off a federal lawsuit filed by preservation groups that said the proposed four-building complex would mar the historic green space, which Frederick Law Olmsted helped design. The lawsuit was later dismissed and a federal appeals court rejected the plaintiffs’ appeal on Aug. 21.

But the resistance from prospective neighbors was stubborn.

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The proposed Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.

"Residents need to buckle down and figure out how to stay here," Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors Executive Director Mattie Butler told the Chicago Tribune in 2016.

A 2019 study from the Network of Woodlawn, a community development agency, and engineering firm AECOM, found median home prices in Woodlawn increased from $92K in 2010 to $175K just nine years later.

WECAN and more than a dozen other groups formed the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition. When City Hall changed hands last year, what had been a fight against the Emanuel administration became a fight with incoming Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

When Lightfoot appointed former affordable housing advocate Marisa Novara as the new Commissioner of Housing, the city had someone who said she was willing to strike a deal and was just as concerned that the $500M Obama Center could bring harm to some local residents.

“We have seen this happen before, that the amenity is often welcomed and is exciting, and yet people who live in the area surrounding that amenity want to be able to stick around and enjoy it,” Novara said this week on WBEZ’s Reset show.

The Lightfoot administration eventually agreed to reserve 30% of the units developed on vacant neighborhood lots owned by the city for “very-low-income families,” those making less than 50% of area median income.

In addition, city officials pledged to spend about $4.5M on a variety of home improvement programs for local residents, as well as promote homeownership and refinance deals that will keep rents affordable. Local renters will have the right of first refusal if landlords decide to sell a property. The City Council unanimously passed the measure at its September meeting.

It’s a far cry from what advocates originally wanted, but the deal could be a model for many other city neighborhoods threatened by possible gentrification and which need more affordable housing, according to Bill Eager, senior vice president of Preservation of Affordable Housing, a nonprofit developer that has acquired or developed more than 700 Woodlawn residences.

“There is a nice balance between promoting homeownership and rentals, and it also reflects the importance of helping people already in Woodlawn stay in Woodlawn, as well as leaving the door open for new development,” he said.

The key was bringing together all of the neighborhood’s many interest groups, he added.

“There were a lot of voices at the table.”

The negotiations weren’t without friction, he said. Although POAH was not officially at the negotiating table, it did take part in the working group set up by the city to brainstorm ideas on possible resolutions.  

“For a while the two sides were not even close to a deal,” Eager said.

20th Ward Alderman Jeanette Taylor, a newly elected South Side progressive, and 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston proposed an ordinance that would have required new housing developments in an area that stretched for several miles around Woodlawn, and encompassed South Shore, Hyde Park, Kenwood and others, to set aside 30% of the new units as affordable housing.     

Members of the coalition even staged sit-ins at City Hall outside Lightfoot’s fifth floor office last February as way to apply pressure.

“Sure, the city was pushed a little bit, but overall, they did a thorough job of getting out into the community,” Eager said. “It ended up being a truly engaged process.”

After nearly two dozen meetings with the many groups in the Obama CBA Coalition, a deal was hammered out over the summer. Taylor called it an acceptable compromise and other activists likewise said they were satisfied.

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The 6700 block of South Bennett Avenue just south of Jackson Park.

“As it stands, this ordinance has the potential to stop the displacement of thousands of low income and working class Black residents who live near the future Obama Presidential Center,” according to a statement released by the coalition in September.

“When we stepped into this work with Woodlawn, I think one of the things we were really deliberate about was to say, ‘We think it is our job, this is the role of the city, it’s certainly the role of the Department of Housing,’ and we partnered with the Department of Planning and Development, to be a proactive partner with neighborhoods,” Novara said on WBEZ’s Reset.

“The main goal that we have in this is, we don’t want to be waiting for changes and then reacting after we’ve seen the displacement of long-time residents,” she added.   

“All of us have been to hundreds of meetings, and some of us are 'meeting-ed' out,” Jackson Park Advisory Council President Louise McCurry said.

JPAC did not take an official position on the battle between City Hall and the local housing advocates, but McCurry, who helps run children’s sports leagues in the park, along with organizing neighborhood volunteer cleanup crews, is happy with the deal and how it got done.

“Nobody got everything they wanted, but everyone did get something they wanted, and it’s also a good thing because the community was involved in making it happen,” she said.       

“I don’t know that I’ve seen this broad-based of an approach, although the Emanuel administration was also very invested in what happens in Woodlawn,” Eager said. “They were deep into the process of listening to what the community wanted, but they just ran out of time. But what the mayor and her team did was as close to a bottom-up process as you’re ever going to see, and by showing that they can make it work, it bodes well for the future,” Eager said.

City officials say the deal for Woodlawn is likely not the last of its kind, and it could be a model for other areas where residents complain about gentrification.

“We’re having the same conversations right now in Pilsen and Little Village with the four aldermen who cross that section,” Novara told WBEZ’s Reset.

The future of Woodlawn and the surrounding communities is still not set and many other decisions need to be made, he added. The city owns a number of vacant parcels along the 12 blocks of 63rd Street between King Drive and Stony Island Avenue, a corridor near the Obama Center site. Now that questions over affordable housing and displacement are settled for now, city planners and community organizations can tackle what happens there, perhaps market-rate housing or institutional uses and commercial development.

“There is great potential for spillover investment on 63rd Street,” Eager said. “This is a real opportunity for community development without displacement, which is not easy to do, but I think people are trying to do it in a healthy way.”

McCurry said she hopes the attention brought by the Obama Center, along with the many thousands of visitors, will help revive the surrounding area, especially the 600-acre Jackson Park. Unlike many parks adjacent to high-income North Side neighborhoods, it’s a bit run down, with broken sidewalks, potholes and areas inaccessible to the disabled. And unlike its North Side counterparts, Jackson Park doesn’t have wealthy private neighborhood groups able to upgrade facilities and add amenities the cash-strapped city can’t afford.

“Hope is something we don’t have a lot of on the South Side, but the Obama Center is going to bring in folks with capital who will help us fund improvements at the park,” she said. “I spend every day in the park, and there is always much more to be done.”