|Former President Barack Obama speaking at a community meeting about the Obama Presidential Center, at Chicago’s South Shore Cultural Center last May. Source: citylab.com|
But what if those fundamentals aren’t universally applicable? What if the fear of displacement exceeds the reality? What if NIMBYs are being reasonable about the perceived limits of development in their neighborhoods? What if there’s affordable housing in accessible neighborhoods, but no one’s moving there?
Welcome to Chicago, and witness the conflict surrounding the development of the Barack Obama Presidential Center on the South Side.
In 2015 Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Barack Obama Foundation announced that the Barack Obama Presidential Center would be built on the city’s South Side, in partnership with the University of Chicago. In 2016, the mayor and the foundation announced that the OPC would be located in Jackson Park, wedged between the Hyde Park (north), Woodlawn (east) and South Shore (south) neighborhoods on the city’s south lakefront. The site would be about a half mile away from the city’s famed Museum of Science and Industry, also in Jackson Park. Early estimates put the cost of the OPC’s construction at $500 million and total jobs at opening at about 2,000. It’s to be supported in part by an endowment expected to be at least $1.5 billion at the OPC’s opening in 2021.
As the OPC moves closer to reality, the Obama Foundation and community activists find themselves debating ways to control or direct the impact of the OPC’s development. Activists are pushing for a community benefits agreement (CBA) meaning they want to establish a contract between the foundation and community groups that codifies expectations — jobs for local residents, contracts for local contractors, and commitments to support affordable housing and the development of neighborhood amenities, among other things.
Activists see an opportunity to transform the South Side and improve the lives of its residents through this project. In a CityLab article by Natalie Moore, in which she artfully and accurately describes the character of the neighborhoods adjacent to Jackson Park, she quotes a local leader in support of a CBA:
“Community benefit agreements are the best way communities around the world have been able to hold developers accountable to the communities where they seek to build,” says J. Brian Malone, executive director of the grassroots Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which represents low-income and working black folk. “This isn’t about whether we trust the first black president to do the right thing. This is simply business.”
In the CBA, South Side community groups are asking the developers to commit to a number of key benefits designed to ensure that a majority of jobs go to residents, including set asides for ex-offenders and low-income people. Workforce development programs would be established to help meet local hiring requirements. In addition, the CBA calls for developing a black business corridor, supporting local small business development, and setting aside new housing for low-income renters. The aim: making sure current residents don’t have to move out when the economic benefits of the Obama center roll in.
“Displacement has to be taken seriously,” says Malone. “Potentially, we have a situation where the intended beneficiaries of this development will have to commute to take advantage of it.”
So far, the foundation and the former president himself have said that they support the idea of a community benefits agreement, but it doesn’t apply in this case. In a community meeting last week, here’s what President Obama had to say:
“The community benefit agreement concept is actually one that can be a really useful tool…if you have a bunch of developers coming in that want to build a high-rise or for-profit enterprise in your neighborhood,” Obama said. “But here’s the thing: we are a nonprofit and aren’t making money. We are just bringing money to the community.”
Delving a little more deeply into the subject, President Obama perhaps reveals some truer thoughts on the merits of a CBA:
“The concern I have with community benefits agreements, in this situation, is it’s not inclusive enough,” Obama said. “I would then be siding with who? What particular organizations would end up speaking for everybody in that community?
“I’m not an outsider here,” he said. “I know the minute you say we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who is getting jobs, and contracts …I’ll have 20 organizations coming out of the woodwork, some of which I’ve never heard of before.”
The real question here is this: while there is an opportunity to expand the benefit of development to South Side residents, is there truly a threat of displacement? I’d argue that there isn’t — and the Woodlawn and South Shore communities that are most wary of the OPC are perhaps the best example of why it isn’t.
Many people are quite familiar with Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, home of the University of Chicago. Just minutes from the Loop, it’s one of the jewels of Chicago neighborhoods. It’s a diverse community with vibrant commercial districts with eclectic fare, a wonderful mix of housing types from single-family homes to modern high-rises, and beautiful lakefront parkland offering excellent views.
Woodlawn and South Shore, to the south and southeast, respectively, share many of the same physical characteristics as Hyde Park, particularly in terms of location and building stock, but don’t share the same economic dynamism. They are both well known among black Chicagoans as long-time homes of the city’s black middle class, once home to many teachers and city workers. Michelle Obama grew up in South Shore, the daughter of a city water department worker. Both neighborhoods also held large numbers of residents employed in the city’s manufacturing sector. As those jobs disappeared, so too have the economic fortunes of so many Woodlawn and South Shore residents.
Consider median household income for each community area since 1970. In Hyde Park, the median household income in 1970, in 2014 dollars, was $47,502 and peaked at $51,214 in 2000. It dropped to $49,416 in 2010 before rising again to $51,232 in 2015 (in 2015 dollars). Woodlawn’s figures fell from $31,595 in 1970 to $22,927 in 1980, and was $23,986 in 2015. In 1970 South Shore had the highest median household income of the three, at $47,827. It’s fallen steadily since, reaching $26,425 in 2015.
True enough, Hyde Park has seen tons of private and institutional investment, while the adjacent Woodlawn and South Shore have not. The University of Chicago Medical Center has been serving the South Side since its founding in 1899, and expanding all the while. It opened a ten-story, 1.2 million square foot Center for Care and Discovery in 2013, estimated at a cost of $700 million, and in late 2015 it was announced that a new trauma center and additional hospital expansion would be constructed between 2018 and 2022. The Museum of Science and Industry, just north of the OPC site, is one of Chicago’s biggest tourist attractions. It brings in more than 2 million visitors per year, and has seen substantial investment in various phases in the 1990s and 2000s.
Yet, two major institutions within virtual walking distance of distressed communities, flush with investment over the past couple of decades, have had next to no impact on their economic prospects.
I’d argue that Chicago’s long-time patterns of segregation have more to do with this than anything, and will continue to have more to do with it in the future. Woodlawn and South Shore both underwent racial transition from largely white to largely black during the ’60s and ’70s, while Hyde Park, buoyed by the presence of the university and major institutions, avoided that fate. I’d also argue that the benefits of Hyde Park’s economic generators became concentrated within its boundaries, and not dispersed into surrounding communities.
An argument can be made that a community benefits agreement could create a stronger connection between Woodlawn and South Shore’s economic behemoth in Hyde Park. I do believe that the OPC can serve as a catalyst in the area, providing new job opportunities and ultimately bringing new amenities that will add to the area’s quality of life. But displacement? I think not. Short of an absolutely gigantic economic stimulus that changes Chicago’s fundamentals, akin to Chicago welcoming Amazon’s HQ2 to the South Side of Chicago, it’s not going to happen.
There’s been enough stimulus already in Hyde Park to compel people to move into Woodlawn and South Shore. But it hasn’t happened. Chicago’s segregation patterns are too entrenched.
When I started my planning career in 1990, I worked with Bronzeville residents who were fearful that nefarious developers were scheming to gobble up properties on the near south lakefront and transform the neighborhood into a new vision of the North Side. At the time, I believed it was possible. Since then, I’ve witnessed a Bronzeville neighborhood that’s seen modest improvement since, mostly driven by upwardly mobile black professionals — not whites feeling priced out of Lincoln Park or Lake View. In fact, I’ve seen a growing sense among people that Bronzeville’s revitalization has been underwhelming; it was expected to come much farther.
Chicago’s legacy of segregation is the ruling force.