Obama center foes decry ‘rubber-stamping’ as Chicago council OKs project

The planned Obama Presidential Center won almost-unanimous approval Wednesday from Chicago’s City Council, despite significant resistance and protests from opponents -- who accused the council of “rubber-stamping” the complex.

The Council voted 47-1 to approve the $500 million center in Jackson Park on the city’s South Side. Former President Barack Obama said in January that he had been “pretty hands-on” and had high hopes for it.

“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 said it would support thousands of new jobs during construction and after the center opens -- claiming it will have a total economic impact of $3.1 billion in the first 10 years.

But opponents have been skeptical that the center will yield such benefits to the local community and have decried the lack of a formal agreement with residents. Others have challenged the use of local parkland for the project.


“The City Council’s rubber-stamping of the Obama Presidential Center was totally expected,” Charles A. Birnbaum, CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C., said in a statement Wednesday.

“For all the talk of transparency, the Obama Foundation has never answered one essential question: Why MUST National Register-designated public parkland be taken for [the Obama center] when other options exist?”

A lawsuit was recently filed from Protect Our Parks alleging the city was engaging in a “short con shell game” to get the 12-story museum and library built on parkland.


The lawsuit argued that while the purpose of transferring the land was to house the official Obama presidential library, the center will not include his presidential papers, only a digital copy.

"Defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way, known as a short con shell game, a corrupt scheme to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab, one that will endure for centuries to come, regardless of future changing public park needs and increasingly consequential environmental conditions,” the lawsuit said.

Even Chance the Rapper, who is from Chicago, said he was excited for the project but expressed the concern at the lack of an agreement with the local community, saying its risks harming the project’s legacy.

The Obama Foundation pushed back against some of these concerns earlier this week, telling the Chicago Plan Commission that the center would integrate the local community and foster economic development.

"Our vision is that the center is a public campus integrated into the park as a part of it and not apart from it," Obama Foundation Chairman Martin Nesbitt said. "When families and young people come to our campus, we hope to have them inspired to see that they have the power to change the things in their lives and the communities they live in."

Chicago Mayor and former Obama aide Rahm Emanuel said last week that it was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to create jobs and honor Obama’s legacy.

An artist's impression of the Obama Presidential Center.

An artist's impression of the Obama Presidential Center. (Obama.org)

“While some choose to stand in the way of progress for the South Side, we are focused on making progress in every community in Chicago,” an Emanuel spokesman said.

Fox News’ Robert Gearty and The Associated Press contributed to this report.