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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Obama Center Site Work Begins As City Preps For Official Groundbreaking Later This Year

The work is starting five years after President Obama chose the Jackson Park site. "There has truly never been a better time to invest in our South Side," Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.

A north-facing view of the Obama Presidential Center plaza and museum building, as viewed from the roof of the Chicago Public Library building.
The Obama Foundation
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HYDE PARK — Pre-construction work will soon begin at the Obama Presidential Center site in Jackson Park ahead of the center’s planned groundbreaking later this year, city and state officials announced Wednesday.

The Obama Foundation plans to start the center’s construction in the second half of 2021. When former President Barack Obama announced in 2016 he intended to build his presidential center in Jackson Park, it was scheduled to open this year.

Before construction begins, the city will now move forward on its plan to replace parkland lost the center with a new recreational area on the Midway Plaisance. Officials will also close some roads and convert them to parkland, add a third southbound lane on Lake Shore Drive from 57th Street to Hayes Drive and make changes to other roadways, bike paths and walkways in and around Jackson Park.

Construction-related jobs, infrastructure improvements and other city investments made around the Obama Center will bring “transformative change” for Black and brown communities near Jackson Park, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.

“There has truly never been a better time to invest in our South Side,” Lightfoot said at a press conference outside the Museum of Science and Industry. “… We urge others to follow our lead and bet on the South Side.”

Credit: Periscope
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at Wednesday’s press conference outside the Museum of Science and Industry, announcing infrastructure work around the Obama Center site will soon begin.

The mayor said the Woodlawn affordable housing ordinance, passed last fall, will ensure longtime residents will benefit from the center’s construction. She officially announced a Woodlawn Revolving Loan Fund of nearly $10 million, a part of the housing ordinance that will help rehabilitate affordable housing already in the neighborhood.

Lightfoot also committed the city will invest $100 million into the “western gateway to the Obama Center” at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove, including a renovation of the Cottage Grove Green Line station, a new office building and a new health care center.

Neighbors have continued to push the city to ensure more protections for Woodlawn, South Shore and Washington Park.

The coronavirus pandemic has “underscored the vital importance” of investments that benefit working families and businesses, Gov. JB Pritzker said. The Chicago Public Library branch and new green space in Jackson Park will do just that, he said.

“This complex will exemplify the Obama Foundation’s commitment for being a place for the community as much as being a space within it,” Pritzker said.

The state has allocated $174 million to the project, Pritzker said.

Other projects to complement the presidential center include a new lakefront bar at 63rd Street Beach, a new breakwater and seawall at Jackson Park’s harbors and a new South Shore beach house, Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly said Wednesday.

Though Lightfoot’s office only publicized the press conference 90 minutes before it was held, local Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th) and Jeanette Taylor (20th) knew it was scheduled and chose not to attend as early as Friday, as first reported by the Hyde Park Herald.

“This was about the park district doing some cleaning and [the Chicago Department of Transportation] moving some poles,” Taylor told Block Club. “Why did we need to have a press conference for that?”

Taylor said she’ll hold an April 21 meeting with ward residents, featuring representatives of the Obama Foundation and presidential center construction team Lakeside Alliance. They’ll discuss “how we get people from our community employed” in the construction and permanent jobs the Obama Center will create.

But officials at Wednesday’s news conference weren’t “talking about any of that, so why am I there?” Taylor said. Lightfoot’s office must facilitate better communication among ward residents, aldermen and city departments, she said.

“We need to work together,” Taylor said. “The city does not need to work in silos on a project that the community has been at odds [over] for so long. Now that the community is willing to work together, the mayor’s office needs to get on board.”

When asked how the mayor can ensure these infrastructure projects are completed equitably, Hairston said, “How about talking with the aldermen?”

Ahead of Wednesday’s news conference, Hairston asked Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar “who was going to be hired from the community” to complete the infrastructure work, she said.

Hairston’s questions “have not fully been answered,” though she “had a very good conversation” with Lightfoot Tuesday evening on the subject, she said.

“We look forward to the real OPC groundbreaking, and will continue working with community residents,” Hairston said. “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.”

“I wouldn’t read too much into them being here or not being here,” Lightfoot said at Wednesday’s news conferece. “… Fundamentally, they want what we all want — to make sure that this community benefits from the work that’s been put in here, and we’ve made a commitment to them.”

The city and foundation’s plans for the Obama Center have sparked complex debates about displacement, land use, race, historical preservation and more among residents of the neighborhoods near Jackson Park.

A series of controversial federal reviews ended in February, when city officials announced the National Park Service and Federal Highway Administration had found the proposed road changes would not significantly impact the environment.

Another federal review found the presidential center plans would have “adverse effects” on the historic nature of Jackson Park, the Midway Plaisance and the entire Chicago park boulevard system.

To address these adverse 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 third land use review found there was no “feasible and prudent” alternative to the proposed road changes.

A years-long legal challenge to the center’s construction in Jackson Park continues. Protect Our Parks filed a petition with the Supreme Court last month, after a U.S. Circuit Court panel ruled against the case last summer, as reported by the Hyde Park Herald.

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