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Obamas to visit Chicago next week for official presidential center groundbreaking

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot will join Obama for the small groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday.

Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be built in nearby Jackson Park, during a gathering at the South Shore Cultural Center on May 3, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. The Presidential Center design envisions three buildings, a museum, library and forum. Obama was accompanied at the event by his wife Michelle who was making her first trip back to Chicago since leaving the White House in January.
Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, to be built in Jackson Park, at the South Shore Cultural Center on May 3, 2017.
Scott Olson/Getty file

WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama officially break ground on their Obama Presidential Center on Tuesday with construction in Chicago’s historic Jackson Park actually kicking off in August.

Ceremonial groundbreaking celebrations for the complex, which will not include the official Obama Presidential Library, start Monday and run through Tuesday. Though Obama hosted a glitzy 60th birthday party at his Martha’s Vineyard home with at least 200 people in August, the Chicago events will be mainly virtual, with in-person attendance limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot will join the former first couple for the small groundbreaking ceremony at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, which will be livestreamed at www.obama.org.

In July 2016, then-President Barack Obama selected Jackson Park, site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, for his center. Nearby Washington Park also was in the running, and likely would have spawned less opposition. Those opposed to the Jackson Park location continue to push, even at this late stage, for a switch to Washington Park.

The Obama Foundation several years ago launched domestic and global programs without waiting for the center’s completion. Monday afternoon, the Obamas’ will meet with the 12 “emerging leaders” named 2021-2022 University of Chicago Obama Foundation Scholars.

Following eight years as president and two campaigns — in 2008 and 2012, both headquartered in Chicago — the Obama alumni network numbers in the thousands. Monday evening, Obama hosts a “fireside chat” for alums with David Plouffe, his 2008 campaign manager and Obama Foundation board member, and Valerie Jarrett, the Obama Foundation President and longtime confidant of the former first couple. Jarrett was in the Obama White House from the first day to the last.

The Obamas’ don’t live in Chicago and it is likely they never will, though they still own a Kenwood home and vote from Chicago. Besides an oceanfront estate in Martha’s Vineyard, the couple have a large house in Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood.

Obama, the nation’s first Black president, launched his political career on the South Side. Obama and Michelle, who grew up on the South Side, believe their center will spark a South Side economic renewal.

Construction is starting even as federal litigation opposing locating the project in Jackson Park is pending. Though a court never intervened to grant an August request to stop the groundbreaking, the underlying case continues. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments at 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 30. Related litigation is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a video released Friday, Michelle Obama said: “This project has reminded us why the South Side and the people who live here are so special. And it’s reaffirmed what Barack and I always believed that the future here is as bright as it is, anywhere.”.

The Obama Center, on 19.3 acres, will take about four years to build.

The latest price tag is $830 million — way up from the original estimate of about $350 million. The most striking structure will be a chunky 235-foot-high, mostly windowless museum tower. The complex also includes an athletic and event center, a forum with a restaurant, an auditorium, recording studios, garage and a Chicago Public Library branch.

Though the public was never told at the time, the original plan for the Center — put together by the University of Chicago — contained a proposal to dig up Cornell Drive and other roads in the park in order for the center complex to connect with the Museum of Science and Industry. While Obama is raising private money to pay for his center, the public will foot the costs – about $125 million - for associated roadwork, including widening Stony Island Avenue and Lake Shore Drive.

The foundation was obliged to pay the Chicago Park District up to $3.5 million to cover the costs of building a new athletic field, to make up for one lost to the Obama complex. City Hall is leasing the park land to the Obama Foundation for $1-a-year.

Though the center is still often referred to as the “Obama Library,” the complex will not house the official Obama Presidential Library run by the National Archives and Records Administration. Artifacts, some records and NARA staffers are located in a nondescript northwest suburban Hoffman Estates building.

In 2017, Obama jettisoned the official presidential library from the project to be free of NARA’s expensive design, endowment and security mandates, saving himself the need to fundraise millions more. If the Obama Center included the NARA-operated Obama Presidential Library, the endowment under NARA rules would be 60% of the library cost.