Plans for the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago are coming under fire amid concerns about the cost and doubts about the benefits for the local area, with a group of professors from the school where Barack Obama once taught slamming one proposal as "socially regressive."
The former president said in a video statement released Tuesday that he had been "pretty hands-on" with the project and had high hopes for what it could do for the local area.
“Michelle and I want this center to be more than just a building,” Obama said. “We want to create an economic engine for the South Side of Chicago, a cultural attraction that showcases the South Side to the rest of the world.”
The Obama Foundation, which unveiled updated plans on Wednesday, says that the center is estimated to support nearly 5,000 new jobs during construction and 2,500 permanent jobs once it opens. It also claims that in its first 10 years, the center is expected to have a total economic impact of $3.1 billion.
But in an open letter published Monday, more than 100 University of Chicago professors and faculty members said they share the concerns of a wide range of neighborhood and activist groups that “the Obama Center as currently planned will not provide the promised development or economic benefits to the neighborhoods” on the South Side of Chicago.
They complain that since the center will be located near an existing museum and the University of Chicago, there will be no land to start new businesses or restaurants nearby.
“We are concerned that rather than becoming a bold vision for urban living in the future it will soon become an object-lesson in the mistakes of the past,” the letter says.
The letter also slams a proposed 450-car parking lot as “socially regressive,” claiming that it “privileges cars and those who can afford them.”
“Parking is expensive, and though public lands are being given away, all the profits from this parking lot will go to the Obama Foundation,” the letter says. “None of the funds will go back to the City to improve train lines and public transportation infrastructure. Overall, this is a socially regressive plan.”
'None of the funds will go back to the City to improve train lines and public transportation infrastructure. Overall, this is a socially regressive plan.'
Perhaps voicing their inner Joni Mitchell, the writers say the nearby park ought to be preserved for future generations and “not given to a private entity for development into a parking lot.”
Finally, the letter complains that Chicago taxpayers will be forced to foot a bill of “hundreds of millions of dollars” and that the widening of the Lake Shore Drive expressway alone could cost over $100 million.
“We are concerned that these are not the best ways to use public funds to invest in the future of Chicago,” the letter says, before urging the foundation to explore alternative sites that would come with greater economic benefits and fewer costs and would respect nearby parks.
Developers are already scrambling to satisfy community concerns. The foundation announced Wednesday that the parking facility would now be located underground, within the Jackson Park site.
In a statement, the Obama Foundation said the planners appreciated the feedback from residents and community members and looked forward to earning their support.
“The Obama Presidential Center will bring upwards of 760,000 people to the South Side every year, and strengthen the economic climate in the region. It will be a place of life and vibrancy where Chicagoans and visitors alike can gather, exchange ideas, learn, and have some fun," a spokesperson said in a statement to Fox News.
"While we don’t expect everyone to agree with every element of the plan, we look forward to working with people across the community and the city to make the most of the opportunity to create a global destination that will showcase the South Side to the world,” the spokesperson added.
The center has encountered controversy amid reports that the center would take on an activity-center vibe including a basketball court, possibly a room for yoga classes, and a test kitchen to teach visitors about the “full production cycle of nutritious food.”
Even after the foundation's announcement of changes to the parking lot, some groups remain opposed to the plans. Charles A. Birnbaum, chief executive of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, complained about the latest design unveiled Wednesday.
"The people of Chicago were told they would get a presidential library administered by the National Archives, a federal facility, in exchange for the confiscation of historic parkland, listed in the National Register of Historic Places – instead, they’re getting a privately operated entertainment campus with a 235-foot-tall tower, a recording studio, auditorium and sports facility, and other amenities," Birnbaum said.
The latest plans from the foundation were released as the group submitted applications for the presidential center.
“The Obama Presidential Center will be a global community center, a place of life and vibrancy that showcases the South Side to the world,” Martin H. Nesbitt, foundation board chairman, said in a statement.
The latest plans reflect that the complex would include a museum, a forum building (including a winter garden, auditorium and other facilities), a library, a plaza and an athletic center.
The Obama Foundation will take its plans before the Chicago Plan Commission in Spring 2018, with the goal of completing construction by 2021.