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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Obama Presidential Center To Break Ground This Summer In Jackson Park

Years of federal reviews have come to a close, and construction could begin as soon as August, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Wednesday.

A north-facing view of the Obama Presidential Center plaza and museum building, as viewed from the roof of the Chicago Public Library building. Jeff Bezos donated $100 million to the Obama Foundation in November and requested the plaza be named for late U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
The Obama Foundation
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WOODLAWN — Construction on the long-delayed Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park may begin as early as August, as years of divisive federal reviews have come to an end, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Wednesday afternoon.

City officials expect to begin pre-construction work in April, pending final confirmation from the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration that their environmental review of site plans is complete.

“With this final step in the review, Chicago is now officially the home of the presidential center for our country’s first Black president,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “The Obama Presidential Center and nearby capital improvement projects will undoubtedly distinguish our city’s historic South Side as a world-class economic and cultural hub.”

The Obama Foundation plans to start the center’s construction in the second half of 2021. When former President Barack Obama announced five years ago he intended to build his presidential center in Jackson Park, it was scheduled to open this year.

Credit: The Obama Foundation
The northern facade of the Obama Presidential Center museum building, as viewed from Stony Island Avenue.

Construction has been delayed for years due to the environmental review, a federal review of the site’s impact on Jackson Park and other historic properties, and legal challenges to building a private foundation’s center in a public park.

“From the beginning, Michelle and I knew there was only one place for the Obama Presidential Center: The South Side of Chicago,” Obama said in a video posted to the foundation’s Twitter account. “It’s where I met Michelle, just a couple miles from where she grew up; where Sasha and Malia were born; where I became a community organizer and won my first election.”

The center and its construction will catalyze development and investment in the South Side neighborhoods around Jackson Park, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said in a statement.

Fears of displacement and inequitable investment due to the Obama Center’s arrival led some South Siders to demand the city and developers enter a community benefits agreement. The foundation rejected calls to sign a CBA.

“You can’t say we want more jobs, more businesses, more opportunity for our kids, but otherwise we want everything to stay exactly the same,” Obama said when asked about displacement in February 2018. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

Hairston and Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) introduced an expansive CBA ordinance with housing protections in July 2019, which stalled in committee for more than a year.

The organizing effort culminated in a scaled-back Woodlawn affordable housing ordinance passed by City Council last September, which reserves at least 30 percent of new apartments developed on 52 vacant, city-owned lots in the neighborhood for “very low-income households.” That’s defined as households making less than 50 percent of the area median income, or about $45,000 annually for a family of four.

The affordable housing ordinance set aside $4.5 million to promote homeownership in Woodlawn and included stronger protections than the city’s initial proposal, but does not go as far as the CBA proposal.

The CBA ordinance would have required residential buildings for sale to first be offered to their tenants; quarterly city studies on displacement; the establishment of a community trust fund and a property tax freeze, in addition to the 30 percent set-aside for affordable housing that was passed.

Organizers counted the housing ordinance passed last fall as a victory, but vowed to continue advocating for expanding housing protections to South Shore and Washington Park and developing a “right to return” amendment to the Woodlawn ordinance.

Such an amendment would give preference to displaced Woodlawn residents as new affordable housing is built.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Obama CBA Coalition members Parrish Brown (with megaphone) and Ebonee Green (in front of microphones) lead a chant at a September 2019 rally for a community benefits agreement.

The city and foundation’s plans for the Obama Center have proven controversial for reasons beyond the fears of displacement. Complex debates about land use, aesthetics, race, historical preservation and more have arisen among residents of the neighborhoods near Jackson Park.

A federal review of Obama Center plans found they would have “adverse effects” on the historic nature of Jackson Park, the Midway Plaisance and the entire Chicago park boulevard system.

To address these effects, an agreement finalized in December calls for the restoration of the Statue of the Republic and the English Comfort Station, plans for public education on the park’s history and the replacement of native trees that would be lost during the center’s construction.

A separate but concurrent land use review found there was no “feasible and prudent” alternative to proposed roadway changes in and around the park.

A third environmental review found the Obama Center plans “would not have a significant impact,” Lightfoot said Tuesday. Federal officials indicated support last fall for the city’s plan to alter recreational space and roads near the site.

Credit: The Obama Foundation
The public plaza planned for the entrance of the Obama Center campus. It will be able to host performances and community festivals, according to the Obama Foundation.

With all reviews completed, the city will move forward on its plan to:

  • Build the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.
  • Replace parkland lost to the center with a new recreational area on the Midway Plaisance.
  • Close the following roads and convert them to park land:
    • Cornell Drive between the Midway Plaisance and Hayes Drive.
    • The northbound section of Cornell Drive between 65th and 68th streets.
    • Marquette Drive between Stony Island Avenue and Richards Drive.
    • The eastbound portion of Midway Plaisance between Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive.
  • Add a third southbound lane on Lake Shore Drive from 57th Street to Hayes Drive, and a travel lane in each direction on Stony Island Avenue from 59th Street to 65th Street.
  • Make changes to other roadways, bike paths and walkways in and around Jackson Park.

Though officials noted the “historic workmanship” of Frederick Law Olmsted’s original design would be diminished, the park would remain eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

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