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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Obama Presidential Center Breaks Ground With Former President And First Lady In Chicago

Plans for the project in Jackson Park have sparked complex debates about housing, displacement, land use, historical preservation and more among nearby residents.

From left: Gov. JB Pritzker, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Mayor Lori Lightfoot shovel a ceremonial scoop of dirt in September 2021, marking the groundbreaking of the Obama Presidential Center.
Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
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WOODLAWN — Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama visited Jackson Park for the Obama Presidential Center’s official groundbreaking Tuesday, one month after construction on the center and related road work began.

The presidential center plans include a museum, an auditorium, a broadcast and recording studio, a Chicago Public Library and an athletic center, among other amenities.

Once completed, the center will serve as an institution where young leaders can develop skills needed to create societal change, the 44th president said in a speech Tuesday. Members of the public were not allowed at the ceremony, which was livestreamed, but dozens of people congregated across from Jackson Park, hoping to get a glimpse of the action.

“This is a place where residents and visitors from all over the world come together and restore the promise of the people’s park,” President Obama said. “That will be the core mission of the center and our foundation programming — inspiring and empowering citizens and communities to act on the biggest challenges of our time.”

The Obamas, Gov. JB Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot headlined Tuesday’s ceremony near the former location of Jackson Park’s track and field. The Obamas, as they have many times before, said their local ties made the Jackson Park location a natural choice for the presidential center.

“This substantial investment in the South Side will help make the neighborhood where we call home a destination for the entire world,” Michelle Obama said. “But more importantly, this project … will be a vital resource for the people who live right here.”

President Joe Biden, Obama’s vice president, congratulated the Obamas on the groundbreaking with a recorded video played during the ceremony.

The center’s costs have more than doubled from an initial projection of $350 million.

Acting Obama Foundation president Valerie Jarrett said in June leaders were estimating a $700 million price tag, while the foundation’s annual report put construction and first-year operating costs at $830 million, according to the Sun-Times.

Credit: The Obama Foundation
A north-facing view of the Obama Presidential Center plaza and museum building, as viewed from the roof of the Chicago Public Library building.

Since construction began Aug. 16, the Obama Foundation has drastically reshaped the 19.3 acres of Jackson Park it now occupies after signing a 99-year, $10 use agreement with the Chicago Park District.

Crews have removed and replaced its track and field, removed the Women’s Garden with plans to construct a new garden, and uprooted trees and plants.

The project is set for completion in 2025, nine years after the foundation announced its intention to build in the historic park.

The Chicago Department of Transportation created a website to track traffic changes and provide information on the city’s infrastructure projects near the Obama Center site. CDOT is set to spend $174 million in state funds on the projects.

The foundation and city’s plans for the Obama Center have sparked complex debates about housing, displacementland usehistorical preservation and more among residents of the neighborhoods near Jackson Park.

Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th) and Greg Mitchell (7th), who represent most of the South Shore neighborhood, also attended Tuesday’s ceremony. Hairston’s ward also includes the Obama Center.

Keeping South Shore residents in their homes as the Obama Center arrives isn’t as simple as copying the demands Woodlawn residents made during their campaign for housing protections, Hairston said.

Hairston said her office is “still working” with residents and community organizations on a plan to offer city assistance to condo associations, co-ops and other forms of shared-ownership housing that are common in South Shore.

“It is not an overnight process,” she said. “We’re creating something that has never been done before. … We have to look at the demographics of the community and address those demographics.”

In City Hall, Hairston has spearheaded the effort to prevent displacement in South Shore, Mitchell said. He added that the Obama Center has the potential to spur investment even in the areas of his ward furthest from the center.

“I follow her lead,” Mitchell said of Hairston. “She has the vision set out, so I’m supporting her with the hopes that this can be the catalyst for future development in the 7th Ward.”

The push to prevent displacement in South Shore “can’t take five years like it did in Woodlawn,” CBA Coalition member and neighborhood resident Dixon Romeo said. With the center’s construction already underway, “we’re getting to the point where it’s going to be desperation time in the community,” he said.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th, right) speaks to the press as Ald. Greg Mitchell (7th) looks on prior to the Obama Presidential Center’s groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday.

The coalition will continue its housing campaign in the neighborhood with a virtual open house 6:30 p.m. Thursday. An in-person session will be held 2 p.m. Sunday at Parkside Community Academy Park, 6938 S. East End Ave.

Organizers will gather input from the two meetings to craft a set of demands, and “the day those demands come out, the next day we should be at the table to figure out how to get something done,” Romeo said.

“This is the community that sent Barack to Springfield, the community that sent him to the Senate and the community sent him to D.C.,” Romeo said. “This should be the community that stays and gets the benefit of the presidential center.”

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) told Block Club she did not attend because she tested positive for coronavirus.

Taylor, who has supported residents’ efforts to secure housing protections for Woodlawn and other community benefits, was vaccinated in March, according to the Hyde Park Herald.

Nonprofit Protect Our Parks, which sued the city, the Obama Foundation and federal officials in April, unsuccessfully sought to halt the Obama Center’s construction.

A plane flying a banner which read, “Stop Cutting Down Trees, Move OPC,” circled the ceremony Tuesday. The removal of mature trees from Jackson Park and potential impacts on migratory birds were among the complaints cited in Protect Our Parks lawsuit.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
A plane flies a banner reading “Stop Cutting Down Trees. Move OPC” above Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony.
Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
By the ceremony’s end, dozens of people had gathered at 61st Street and Stony Island Avenue across from Jackson Park. Members of the public were not allowed inside the park for the ceremony, though a livestream was available online.

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