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Obama Presidential Center groundbreaking set for early fall

With a federal review complete, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “Chicago is now officially the home of the presidential center for our country’s first Black president.”

Former President Barack Obama with plans for his presidential center in Jackson Park.
Groundbreaking for the Obama Presidential Center is set for this fall.
Getty

WASHINGTON — With a long-running federal review complete, the first pre-construction utility relocation work for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park will start in April, with preliminary roadwork and site preparation to begin as early as August, the Obama Foundation and City Hall announced Wednesday.

Former President Barack Obama, in a video message released Wednesday, said: “We know that by working together, we can unlock the South Side’s fullest potential — and help set up our city, our country and our world for even better years still to come.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement, “With this final step in the review, Chicago is now officially the home of the presidential center for our country’s first Black president.”

The groundbreaking has been delayed for years due to a federal review launched in November 2017.

City Hall told the Obama Foundation on Wednesday the federal review was complete, putting in motion plans to set the stage for actual construction.

Groundbreaking is expected in early fall, Lori Healey, former CEO of the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, now overseeing Obama Presidential Center construction, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

The April work in Jackson Park, targeted to be completed this fall, will include relocating or rerouting sewer, water and electrical utilities on the 19.3-acre site.

The most recent model of the proposed Obama Presidential Center.
A model of the proposed Obama Presidential Center.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Obama always envisioned his center to be an economic engine to revitalize the South Side — where ex-first lady Michelle was raised and where the 44th president started his political career in the Illinois State Senate.

The foundation has made extensive commitments to train and hire a diverse workforce to construct the Obama campus. Healey said the foundation will establish a system where the public will be able to track its diversity pledges.

The foundation estimated up to 5,000 Obama Center construction jobs will be created directly and indirectly. The foundation promised to award half the subcontracts to “diverse vendors.”

The federal review was mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act because Obama decided to locate his center in Jackson Park, a site of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The park was designed by famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

The park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Foundation planners never anticipated a long-running review and at one point predicted groundbreaking would take place in 2018.

City Hall is still waiting for the “receipt of final documentation” confirming the review is done.

The Obama Center campus will be privately funded and maintained. It will take a projected four years to build. Tax dollars will pay for related roadway changes, with one estimate at $174 million.

The agreement between the city and the foundation calls for the foundation to certify to the city that it has funds or pledge commitments “equaling or exceeding the projected total construction costs” for the campus. For several years now, the foundation has estimated that cost at $500 million.

“We have the cash,” Michael Strautmanis, the foundation’s Chief Engagement Officer, told the Sun-Times.

The center will include a 235-foot stone-sheathed tower containing a museum; a dual-use building for events and athletic activities; a Chicago Public Library branch; a forum with offices; and outdoor space. The shade of the stone is still to be determined, Healey said.

There will also be a fruit and vegetable garden, a carryover from one of former first lady Michelle Obama’s signature projects — her White House vegetable garden, which gained notice across the globe.

Paving over roadways in Jackson Park to convert to park land — especially Cornell Drive — became and remains controversial.

To handle the heavier traffic demand, Lake Shore Drive will get an extra southbound lane from 57th to Hayes Drive and Stony Island will be widened from 59th St. to 65th.

The multi-agency review concluded there was “no significant impact” from the Obama center and related roadway work in a document dated Jan. 21.

In May 2018, a federal lawsuit was filed to block building the Obama Center in Jackson Park by a group called “Protect Our Parks.” Though no legal actions from the group to date have stopped the project, the group’s president, Herb Caplan, said the federal review conclusions are “specious” and a new round of legal action “will be soon filed.”

There is no official Obama Presidential Library in the complex because Obama did not want to be bound by design restrictions, financial requirements and other rules imposed by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The unclassified artifacts, photos and records from Obama’s eight years in office were transferred to a nondescript building in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates.

NARA spokesman Laura Diachenko told the Sun-Times: “The classified textual records were moved to a National Archives facility in the Washington, D.C., area last year as part of a broader consolidation of classified NARA holdings.”