Forging a Community Vision on Chicago’s South Side
With the Obama Presidential Center on the horizon, residents are creating a plan for the neighborhood’s future.
In 2015, Barack Obama chose Chicago as the home for his presidential library, after considering sites from New York to Honolulu. His decision was big news for the city where he began his political career — and especially for the South Side, where he once worked as a community organizer and law professor. The capstone of Obama’s legacy, a $500 million building project, would come to a once-thriving area that has suffered from decades of disinvestment.
Woodlawn, the neighborhood closest to the future library site, is surrounded by amenities that attracted middle-class residents to the area when it was developed, around the time of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Located near Chicago’s lakefront, it borders two of the city’s great, historic public spaces — Jackson Park and Washington Park, both planned by the landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted. The neighborhood is close to the University of Chicago and well-connected by public transit to Chicago’s Loop.
Despite these advantages, a combination of factors contributed to the area’s decline in the postwar era. As a predominantly African-American neighborhood, Woodlawn has struggled with the longterm effects of discriminatory housing practices, along with a lack of economic opportunity. From 80,000 residents in 1960, Woodlawn has seen its population shrink to just 24,000 today.
“There used to be jazz clubs and restaurants here. Now there’s a lot of vacancy,” says Dawveed Scully, an urban designer at SOM, who grew up nearby and lives in the neighborhood.
For an area where opportunities are scarce — the median annual income in Woodlawn is just $24,000 — the Presidential Center promises to bring thousands of jobs to the South Side. Still, the neighborhood’s excitement around the announcement gave way to a lingering sense of uncertainty. Some residents and local groups asked whether the coming changes would truly benefit the community.
“One of the biggest concerns was gentrification,” says SOM urban designer Elisabet Olle. Along with Scully, she has worked with the community on an initiative called Woodlawn 2025. “Residents saw the Obama Library coming there as something super positive, but they were also concerned about how it might change the area,” she says. Many locals feared rising rents and the possibility of displacement.
Community leaders in Woodlawn saw that this enormous catalyst for change demanded the intervention of residents and stakeholders. They set out to leverage and direct the opportunity, with an approach based on self-determination and community consensus.
Woodlawn 2025 seeks to achieve this consensus — bringing together local groups, residents, and urban designers to develop a long-range community plan. The goal is to ensure that longtime residents will not only see the benefits of the Presidential Center’s impact, but will also define the future of their neighborhood.
Building community, from the ground up
Despite the challenges that Woodlawn faces — abandonment, crime, and limited job opportunities — it has established institutions and knowledgeable residents who are eager to be involved in its redevelopment. The Network of Woodlawn and 1Woodlawn, two related groups led by Dr. Byron T. Brazier, took the initiative to ensure that the community has “an equal seat at the table” with the Obama Foundation, the City of Chicago, and the University of Chicago.
This South Side community has spent recent years building the foundation for its future on Brazier’s “Four Pillars” — education, public safety, health and human services, and economic and community development. It has brought its elementary schools up to top citywide rankings, and its high school offers the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum. Serious crime has been dramatically reduced. Economic development initiatives are focused on creating jobs in emerging industries, such as advanced manufacturing and robotics. And the highly collaborative community is weaving its own social safety net on the strength of local institutions.
Dr. Brazier, an influential community leader and the pastor at Woodlawn’s Apostolic Church of God, invited SOM to contribute its expertise in community engagement and urban design. He challenged the planning team to engage with the neighborhood and its institutions, and to design a compelling, community-defined vision that can be implemented.
Connecting the dots
The SOM team started off with numerous listening sessions, meeting with stakeholder institutions, neighborhood groups, and individuals driving local change. Then, the team introduced a new approach to community engagement: teach the residents to be urban planners themselves. Scully created and taught a six-week course to educate about 40 residents in planning principles such as floor area ratio (FAR), road hierarchy, and the city approval process. The course gave them the capacity to draft the Woodlawn 2025 plan themselves, and confidently take their seat at the table.
“Residents helped us understand what changes they wanted to see, and we helped them understand the process,” he says. “When people see vacant lots and houses, they might say, ‘The city needs to fix this.’ But there’s not always an understanding of market forces, or what’s private versus public, or how city agencies operate and how to move things forward.”
“The planning approach was to bring all of Woodlawn’s assets and ideas together,” Scully says, “from community groups interested in public open space or urban farming, to large scale institutions like the University of Chicago, and nonprofits like the YWCA. We sought to build on what they’re doing, and make it into a cohesive plan that could be implemented in a stronger way.”
“There were really great conversations,” he says. “Some people were interested in creative approaches to housing — tiny homes, or manufactured housing. Some people were focused on getting more open space. Others were interested in how to bring restaurants and entertainment back to the neighborhood.”
“We could see right away that there were so many initiatives already going on within the community,” Olle says. “A lot of groups were working separately, but toward similar goals. We saw our role as helping to put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
Dialogue meets data
In tandem with community engagement, data became an important tool in the planning process. The planning team used geographic information systems (GIS) technology to collect information on demographics, land use, amenities, infrastructure, and more. “The community already knew what the issues were. The data gave us another layer of information that helped us understand what to design,” Olle says. “For instance, we knew that there was a high rate of crime in certain areas. When we looked at the data, we could see that these were often the same areas lacking open spaces and parks.”
“It was interesting bringing the data back to the residents,” Scully says. “We showed them our maps and asked, ‘Do you see the lack of open space contributing to the crime issue in this area?’ A lot of people told us, ‘That makes a lot of sense. There’s nothing for kids to do over here when they get out of school.’ Even when looking at trends about land use patterns and demographics, the data gave us a better understanding of what certain areas may need.”
A collective vision, coming to life
Together with the community, the planning team uncovered opportunities for inclusive development, from smaller interventions to longterm aspirations. One of the major goals is to regenerate the neighborhood’s main artery, 63rd Street, as a vibrant corridor with diverse uses. There, the design team and residents imagined a new Woodlawn Central Park, calling for a vacant city-owned property to be repurposed as a public amenity. “This major street had a lot of vacancy, and we saw that as an opportunity,” Olle says.
The planning process has helped Woodlawn residents chart a course toward achieving their goals. One resident who attended the sessions is working to create a new public park in an underserved area. “She found a plot of land where there’s no park within a 10-minute walk,” Scully says. “We brought her into our office to meet with a couple of landscape architects, and they sketched out some ideas. Now we’re connecting her with the Parks District and the Obama Foundation to help move the process forward.”
Other local groups are seeking to spark economic opportunities, in part by renovating vacant properties for new uses. “Some of the older buildings here have 100,000-square-foot floor plates. People are interested in converting those, perhaps for advanced manufacturing,” says Scully. “A new facility for a robotics training program was recently built in another ward on the South Side. How could you bring that type of activity to Woodlawn as well?”
A few years out from the Obama Presidential Center’s anticipated opening in 2021, changes have already started to come to Woodlawn. Investors and property developers have begun to take a stake in the neighborhood. Yet, through the collective effort of a ground-up planning process, its residents are better equipped to build the neighborhood they want — with greater opportunity for everyone.
“You’re seeing a buildup already,” Scully says. “So, now we’re focused on bringing affordable housing back, building up retail and energy around some key nodes in the community, and trying to find opportunities for business and jobs. I don’t think we’ll see all of it at once, but I think we’ll see a lot in the next seven or eight years.”
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