Former President Barack Obama on Tuesday addressed feelings of "concern and trepidation" over plans to build his presidential center in the heart of Chicago's South Side, saying he believes the complex will generate economic growth.
The center's potential construction in Jackson Park has generated fear among activists that poorer African-Americans, seniors and disabled residents could be forced out of their housing if property taxes and rents spike, the Chicago Tribune reports.
"Sometimes there’s a feeling of stuff being done to us and not for us," Obama said. "Sometimes there’s a feeling of suspicion and concern and trepidation. That means you’re worried."
"Twenty years from now, I want young people from across the South Side … to look at this center and say, ‘This is a sign that I count. This is a sign I can change the world,’" he added. "That is more important than any legacy I can ever have."
In the Obama Foundation's final public meeting on the center, Obama addressed hundreds of people at McCormick Place to try to assuage concerns about rising costs and gentrification. It is unprecedented for such a center to be built in a heavily populated, urban location.
"A lot of times, people get nervous about gentrification and understandably so," Obama said. "It is not my experience ... that the big problem on the South Side has been too much development, too much economic activity, too many people being displaced because all these folks from Lincoln Park are filling in to the South Side. That's not what's happening."
"We have such a long way to go before you will start seeing the prospect of gentrification," he added. "[My daughter] Malia's kids might have to worry about that. Right now, we've got to worry about broken curbs and trash and boarded-up buildings. That's what we really need to work on."
In addition to questions about parking and traffic, the expenses involved have also drawn controversy, according to the Tribune:
The foundation’s top brass had to justify proposed roadwork and underpass construction that will cost the public about $175 million. Officials pointed out that the bulk of the center’s construction, which should total more than $500 million, is being paid for with private donations.
Leaders of Jackson Park Watch, a park advocacy group, on Tuesday criticized the roadwork plan as an "undue and unnecessary burden on taxpayers." Yet in a sign that it will be hard to turn back the political momentum behind the center’s proposed location, the group’s leaders said that they are not calling for the center to leave the Jackson Park site but instead want the city to consider alternatives to the road proposal.
Obama said he envisions his center as a place for young leaders to gather and be a model for inclusion, in addition to creating opportunities and jobs for the South Side.
"There are kids on the South Side that don’t even think about going downtown," he said. "The parks on the South Side should look like parks on the North Side. They should be as vibrant and have as many amenities and have as much programming."
Obama has deep roots in Chicago, where his political career began as a community organizer. He taught law at the University of Chicago and also served in the Illinois Senate before eventually being elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois in 2004.