Obama Defends Presidential Center After It Was Panned as 'Socially Regressive'

'Building something new is never easy'

Barack Obama
Getty Images
January 10, 2018

The Obama Foundation has released statements defending its plans for the Presidential Center, in a week of heightened denunciation of the charity's intention to commandeer public park space for a construction plan that some expect will harm the local economy.

In an email Wednesday morning from the Obama Foundation and signed by "Barack," the former president continued to make his case for the campus, despite continued criticism by locals, including nearly 200 faculty at the University of Chicago— which is adjacent to the anticipated site of the Center—who panned the plans as "socially regressive" in an open letter.

"Building something new is never easy. It requires patience. It requires listening," read the Foundation statement. "Not just listening for show, but actively incorporating what we've learned into the plans."
"[A]s we've said before," wrote the Foundation, "the Obama Presidential Center will be an open, inclusive campus that integrates directly into Jackson Park"—a beloved historic park, whose reallocation for private development has drawn anger from the community the Foundation claims it intends to serve.

The Obamas want the Center to be an "economic engine for Chicago and the South Side," according to the statement. According to the U. Chicago faculty, the Center "will not provide the promised development or economic benefits," as it eats up the remaining real estate near the university and an extant museum, leaving no room for locals to build their own businesses around the complex.

The Foundation wrote it will "of course" have a museum and library, though it did not address the faculty's specific complaint that the Center will be unaffiliated with the National Archives, as official presidential libraries generally are. As such, the site will not house original manuscripts, but only provide access to an electronic database of Obama materials.

That decision also made the Center ineligible for millions in federal aid, and while the $500 million project will be covered by the private donations, local taxpayers will face an estimated $100 million bill to cover costs generated by road closures called for in the blueprint.

Public input was credited for significant changes made since the plans were initially announced, including the scrapping earlier this week of a parking garage slated for construction atop yet another historic park. The community was assured the Foundation would "continue to turn to you for your feedback."

The Center has been "designed to be a town square of sorts," for "folks from all walks of life…. to connect and collaborate," according to the statement.

Obama also reminisced of a childhood dream of being an architect, noting that he has "been pretty hands-on" in the planning stages.

The foundation released a video Tuesday night, in which Obama made many of the same comments repeated in the email, and called his Center an example of "what ordinary people have the power to do together."

The statements were made ahead of the Foundation's formal submission of its plans to the Chicago Plan Commission on Wednesday, with the goal of gaining approval by the spring, breaking ground this year, and opening in 2021.