Obama Center Is Finally Coming, And 'The Right Organizations Are At The Table'
Clearing away the many legal and regulatory hurdles encountered by the proposed Obama Presidential Center, which could break ground as early as next week, won’t bring an end to controversy over how the $700M complex will impact the South Side neighborhood of Woodlawn.
Such a high-profile project will undoubtedly attract attention from some market-rate developers. And with local housing prices already on the way up, plotting out strategies to avoid displacing residents of the low-to-moderate-income neighborhood will take years, according to Bill Eager, senior vice president of nonprofit developer Preservation of Affordable Housing, which has acquired or developed more than 700 Woodlawn residences.
“People are trying to find the perfect balance between the right amount of economic growth that benefits the neighborhood, but does not lead to displacement,” he said.
But Eager added Woodlawn residents are well on their way to meeting the challenge. Debate over the Obama Center, especially where the four-building complex would be located, has already led to an extraordinary level of activism, with a host of community organizations, nonprofits and block clubs taking part in the debates and lawsuits that started when the project was first proposed in 2016.
“There are big and important questions that need to be settled over the next few years, but the community is really well-organized around this issue and has been for some time,” he said.
The Obama Center has been on the verge of construction before, only to be derailed or delayed by federal reviews, court battles and other complaints about its potential impact on historic structures and local housing affordability, as well as possible environmental damage to historic Jackson Park.
But a federal judge’s dismissal last week of a request by the nonprofit Protect Our Parks to halt construction, finally allows the Obama Foundation to break ground next week near 63rd Street and Stony Island Boulevard on the park’s west side. The foundation plans to finish work on the 20-acre campus in 2025, planting a museum, athletic center, library and community forum in the park.
“It will be interesting to see what happens on 63rd Street,” Eager said of the once-thriving commercial district east of the park, now dotted with vacant lots and underdeveloped properties. It will sit between the Obama complex and the expanding University of Chicago to the north, a potential draw for new investment.
“It has great potential that can be unlocked, and I think there will be a lot of additional interest,” Eager said.
Eager hopes the activity brought about by the Obama Center will provide new energy to ongoing development efforts at the intersection of 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. Friend Health is building a $37M, 128K SF medical campus on the northwest corner and the Chicago Transit Authority has pledged to spend $60M on a revamp of the intersection’s Green Line elevated train station.
POAH has also been an active player, finishing Woodlawn Station, a $25M affordable housing complex on the northeast corner, in 2018. It also recently unveiled plans for a $25M development across the street that instead of affordable housing, will provide the neighborhood with retail and office space.
As the Obama Center takes shape over the next few years, Eager said the group will keep a close eye on whether it dries up the pool of affordable housing. It took a big step this summer to keep Woodlawn affordable by buying Island Terrace Apartments from PNC Bank. The 240-unit tower at 6430 South Stony Island Blvd. is across from the future site of the Obama Center, and serves a broad range of incomes and household sizes.
“We were interested in it before the Obama Center was proposed, and have been looking at it for a while, but as the start of the Obama Center approached, there was certainly an added urgency,” Eager said. “It’s a property that was certainly at risk of conversion to market rate.”
POAH got a lot of help to complete the deal. It was an allocation of low-income housing tax credits from the Illinois Housing Development Authority, along with a financial commitment from the city of Chicago that made the purchase possible. PNC Bank was also on board.
“They got a lot of bids, but in the end, they wanted to sell to a preservation-focused group,” he said.
“PNC’s thoughtful sale of Island Terrace to POAH ends the anxiety that so many felt,” 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston said in a statement. “POAH’s record of housing preservation, high-quality building and renovation work, and thoughtful management makes us confident in the future of affordable housing in this fast-changing community.”
Additional affordable housing efforts are underway. Neighborhood community groups such as Kenwood Oakland Community Organization formed the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition in the wake of the Obama Center plans. Last year, they got Mayor Lori Lightfoot to agree to reserve 30% of the units developed on vacant neighborhood lots owned by the city for very-low-income families, or 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.
All these plans need to be fleshed out, but the months-long process between Lightfoot, city council members and community groups set the stage for a cooperative approach, according to Eager.
“The right organizations are at the table,” he said.