Barack Obama answers community questions about Presidential Center

Monica Westlake
Following the panel, boards were set up around the lobby displaying plans and information about the OPC. A representative of the Obama Foundation listens to community member's questions about the landscape. 

By Savannah Eadens

Former President Barack Obama shocked audience members when he made a surprise Skype appearance for the Obama Foundation’s public meeting Sept. 14 to answer the community’s questions about the Obama Presidential Center’s construction in Jackson Park. 

“I wanted to emphasize to all of you the reason why I wanted to have the Presidential Center on the South Side of Chicago,” Obama said at the meeting. “It’s not just because that place is near and dear to my heart … it’s also because the South Side is representative of all the amazing talent, creativity and community bonds that so often aren’t highlighted.” 

In attendance at the meeting—held at Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, 2233 S. Martin Luther King Drive—were Michael Strautmanis, vice president of civic engagement of the Obama Foundation; Louise Bernard, museum director of the OPC; Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, lead architects of the OPC; and Michael Van Valkenburgh, landscape designer for the OPC. Each spoke on the center’s conceptual plans. Strautmanis outlined the workplace initiative already in place. 

“We are going to focus on young people who need and deserve a second chance,” Strautmanis said. “We will work with the labor unions to increase the pipeline of talent for a diverse workforce. We are going to engage the residents who live here.” 

According to a May 11 report from the Obama Foundation, OPC’s construction will create 4,945 direct, indirect and secondary jobs, which will pump $3.1 billion into the neighborhood’s economy over the next decade. The analysis also estimated the center will generate 625,000 to 760,000 visitors annually. 

Architects Williams and Tsien explained the center will have an open design with three main buildings, including the museum and a library they would like to become a Chicago Public Library branch. The open design concept’s goal is to unify the park and neighborhood. Williams said the buildings will be connected by gardens, and Tsien added that the center will be accessible to the Jackson Park lagoon and Lake Michigan. 

“We’re trying to make this a porous campus, something that you can walk through, not walk around,” Tsien said. 

OPC’s construction will lead to several changes in Jackson Park, including the definite closure of Cornell Drive and the relocation of a public football field and running track. Carol Adams, a 48-year neighborhood resident and South Shore Works committee member, said the changes and inconveniences are necessary in order to reach their goal.

“[The OPC] will bring people to our jewel who otherwise might never have gotten here,” Adams said. “This is an opportunity for us to show this beautiful community, and for it to develop in ways it should, particularly in business and commerce.”

When Strautmanis opened the floor to questions, Janette Taylor, who lives in Woodlawn, asked Obama to sign a “Community Benefits Agreement” to ensure that while the South Side neighborhoods will see an economic boost from OPC, residents will not be pushed out, property taxes will not rise and that the foundation will be transparent throughout the process. Taylor is a member of a group who stood outside the hotel all day to make sure their voices were heard. Obama opposed signing an agreement because he said the OPC is a nonprofit that will bring money to the neighborhood. 

“The only reason Michelle [Obama] and I build in this community is so it benefits the community,” Obama replied. “We are going to set up a process in which everyone has a seat at the table—every organization will have its input. I’m not going to guarantee that every single person in the community is going to be perfectly happy with every decision we make because, if that were the case, nothing would ever be built.”

Two Hyde Park Academy High School students asked Obama what programs will be available for students at the OPC. 

Obama said the center will provide educational programs to teach youth how to get involved in community activities, to apply for college and financial aid, as well as business professionals to help youth learn how to start businesses. There will also be a restaurant at the center that Obama said he hopes will provide part-time work to students. 

“We’re also going to be setting up a studio where we could have Chance [the Rapper] come in and teach young people how to use music as a tool,” Obama said. 

The Obama Foundation also announced Sept. 13 that Barack and Michelle Obama will be in Chicago Oct. 31 through Nov. 1 for an inaugural summit with civic leaders from all over the world. 

Strautmanis asked the audience to forget everything they know about other presidential libraries in the U.S. 

“The purpose of the Obama Presidential Center is to create a place that inspires and entertains, that gives families a safe and enjoyable place to gather and have fun on the South Side of Chicago,” Strautmanis said.