Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker marked the official beginning of Chicago Park District and Department of Transportation work in Jackson Park on April 14, kicking off preparations for the construction of the Obama Presidential Center later this year.
Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th) and Jeanette Taylor (20th) skipped the ceremony, however, citing concerns over those agencies' contracting with minority-owned firms for construction.
The event held at the Museum of Science and Industry did not mark the groundbreaking of the OPC itself, which is still months away. The 44th president's foundation headquarters and museum will be built by the Lakeside Alliance, a joint venture of four Black-owned Chicago construction companies and the multibillion-dollar subsidiary Turner Construction.
Last week, Hairston told the Herald that the Park District's general contractor is White, that one of their subcontractors is Black but not from Chicago, and the other two subcontractors are Latino. She also said CDOT has not been clear about what companies will do the large-scale redesign of roadways within the park.
"We look forward to the real OPC groundbreaking and will continue working with community residents," she and Taylor said in a statement. "We would like to encourage the city to take a different workforce approach — one closer to the one the Obama Foundation is taking that will ensure jobs stay in our neighborhoods."
Asked about the alderwomen's absence, Lightfoot said that her administration has been in conversation with them and that she does not read too much into it.
"We have not been able to do the work without them,” Lightfoot said. “They have been crucial, particularly the Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance.”
"Fundamentally, they want — which we all want — to make sure this community benefits from the work that's been put in here, and we've made a commitment to them," the mayor said. "This is going to be an iterative process that must continue to engage the residents and obviously the local elected officials."
General Superintendent and CEO Michael P. Kelly said minority- and women-owned business (MBE/WBE) hiring is "front and foremost" for the Park District. He said the new track and field, — replacing the one being displaced by the OPC at 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue — is 80% done and that the district worked closely with Hairston on a community-hiring program that met MBE/WBE standards.
Kelly also said the utility work in Jackson Park, due to start next week, will meet MBE/WBE numbers. So too, he said, will the restoration work on the Iowa Building and all the other projects.
"We're going to meet and exceed all the MBE/WBE requirements," he said. "We'll continue to work closely with the alderman on local hiring as well."
Commissioner Gia Biagi said CDOT is committed to meeting MBE/WBE participation benchmarks and is working with the state to get local hiring requirements in place.
"In addition to 50% city hiring, there's also a local hiring (component) that's hyper-local, people who live in and around the community being part of that project," she said. "We're doing that throughout this project and then all of the capital projects throughout our program, working with organizations like the Chicago-Cook Workforce Partnership to make sure that we're getting folks not only in the pipeline but into jobs for longterm careers."
Lightfoot said the event marked the beginning of more than $200 million in "transformative" public investment "into Jackson Park, Woodlawn and other communities." She said the state has made "a huge commitment" alongside the city, though she hopes the federal government will contribute as well.
"This is an investment that South Side residents have been asking for for far too long and will enhance our historic Jackson Park, generate good-paying, sustainable for residents in the surrounding area and ensure that these residents, and particularly long-time residents in particular, will be able to participate in and take advantage of our post-pandemic economy and importantly, be able to afford to remain here in their neighborhoods," she said. "And this will amplify the positive catalytic impact of the Obama Presidential Center."
As part of her Invest South/West Initiative, Lightfoot also said her administration would invest $100 million more west from 63rd and Cottage Grove Avenue, which she called the "western gateway to the Obama Center," with amenities like the renovation of the Green Line station, new office buildings and creation of space for a new federally qualified health center.
Eventually, there are plans for off-street pedestrian and bike trails and underpasses to the lakefront. The controversial closure of six-lane Cornell Drive between the Midway Plaisance and Hayes Drive will allow the land atop which the blacktop currently sits to be turned into greenspace.
"At CDOT, we're looking forward to getting going on this plan, and that better-connected space that you heard about, combined with the Park District improvements and our own, that's 5 new acres of parkland as part of this campus," Biagi said. "It's a dramatic improvement that will really create better connections for pedestrians and cyclists, and it will create a world-class destination right here on the South Side."
Gov. J.B. Pritzker touted the state and municipal collaboration to prepare Jackson Park for the OPC's arrival, saying it "unlocks far more jobs, tourism and economic activity than any one entity could pursue by itself," adding, "As we approach the halfway mark in our effort to vaccinate our adult population, our next-highest priority is focusing on building a prosperous future that all Illinoisans deserve.”
Projects are scheduled to begin moving this summer, when the South Midway inside Jackson Park will close. Lanes on Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island are eventually due to be added later this summer as Cornell Drive within the park will eventually close, too.
The Park District also plans to begin other OPC-related utility work between the Midway and Hayes; furthermore, the Iowa Building and baseball diamonds will be renovated, and a dog play area will be relocated.
Lightfoot also said the city would minimize the number of trees that have to be removed because of construction, with Biagi saying that the work will avoid trees used by migrating birds.