Time for scrutiny and accountability
In its Feb. 11 editorial concerning the Obama Presidential Center, the Chicago Tribune pointed to unresolved OPC issues related to economic growth, gentrification, and traffic flow even while interpreting the City’s announcement of the near conclusion of the federal reviews as a green light for the OPC’s construction in Jackson Park. We strongly agree that key issues remain to be resolved before construction begins.
Echoing assessments by the Sun-Times editorial board and reports in Crain’s Chicago Business, the Tribune board stated, “there’s still much to do to ensure the center . . . lives up to the pledges it made. . . . [M]any times on these pages, we have asked Obama’s team and City Hall for a more specific road map for that $3 billion in [projected] economic growth. Four years after Obama first announced Jackson Park as the site for his presidential center, we and the rest of the city are still waiting for it. It’s vital that the [Obama]foundation and City Hall work [to] hit their projections of 700,000 visitors annually, and a robust infusion of retail, dining and lodging revenue for the South Side.”
As JPW has noted (most recently in the Jan. 24 Update), the taxpayer costs of the current plan for the OPC are high and the promises of extraordinary economic benefits are wishful thinking. The Obama Foundation envisions 700,000 visitors per year for the next decade. That number was unrealistic when developed in 2017 – 75% greater than any other presidential center has ever realized – and is even more suspect now when the pandemic has totally disrupted tourism and museum attendance for the foreseeable future and when the path to economic recovery is uncertain. With fewer visitors, the economic impact of the OPC on the South Side will be much less, a downsizing exacerbated by the fact that the planned site in Jackson Park is distant from any retail district or space available for new commercial development. The additional reality of the pandemic is its dire impact on the City’s financial straits for years to come.
Given this double whammy, it is necessary to assess and adjust the public costs of the OPC to the City. There has been no public accounting of the City’s total financial commitment to the Obama Foundation. The tip of the iceberg is the $174 million in federal transportation funds that has been allocated to the City by the State for the extensive road work designed specifically to accommodate the current OPC plan. Yet the OPC could be built in Jackson Park, on the original site provided for that purpose in 2015, without the disruptive closure of Cornell Drive or east-bound Midway Plaisance and without the costly widening of Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue. A large portion of the funds from the Federal-Aid Highway Program could then be re-directed to other more urgent transportation needs in the City. Or, without the loss of any public parkland, the OPC could be moved to another location on the South Side more suitable for commercial development, where such costly public infrastructure work would not be needed. We note that the taxpayer funds committed just for the OPC-related roadwork constitute a 35% public subsidy for a private development estimated to cost $500 million. In comparison, the controversial and much debated public funding offered for the Lincoln Yards development via TIF funds constitutes only a 22% public subsidy. Such an investment, by a City in a budgetary crisis, deserves closer scrutiny.
JPW shares the Tribune’s hope that the Obama Center will promote prosperity on the South Side as well as recognize the historic achievements of President Obama. But we also agree wholeheartedly with the Tribune that there are lingering issues to be resolved about the current plan for the OPC. Having learned the lessons of the City’s parking meter and Skyway agreements, we believe the issues should be resolved now, before ground is broken. The City and the Obama Foundation must be held accountable for their lofty promises, and that should start with a re-consideration of the current plan.
If you are concerned about these or other unresolved issues about the OPC, we encourage you to speak up and speak out. See TAKE ACTION on the JPW website.
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Brenda Nelms and Jack Spicer
Co-presidents, Jackson Park Watch
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