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Green space in Jackson Park slated to become the Obama Presidential Center near South Stony Island Avenue and East 60th Street on the South Side, Wednesday morning, April 14, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Green space in Jackson Park slated to become the Obama Presidential Center near South Stony Island Avenue and East 60th Street on the South Side in April 14. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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Obama Center construction kicks off Monday; foundation to get Jackson Park land on Friday

On Monday, the Obama Center acres will be fenced off, roadway work starts, and the turf from a track field on the site will begin to be removed.

The Obama Presidential Foundation takes possession of 19.3 acres in Jackson Park at 11:59 p.m. Friday for the Obama Center unless there is a last-minute delay needed for City Hall to scrutinize the foundation’s new IRS financial disclosure report.

There will be no ceremony marking the official transfer, which was not publicly announced. The final legal documents will be electronically signed Friday at 9 p.m., a City Hall official said.

An Obama Foundation spokesperson told the Sun-Times construction starts Monday in the park, designed by famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

In July 2016, then-President Barack Obama, who launched his political career on the South Side, selected Jackson Park, the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, for his center.

Obama’s decision to locate his presidential complex in a landmarked park automatically triggered a federal review. Foundation planners did not factor in that a federal review typically takes years and at one point predicted groundbreaking would be in 2018. The review started in 2017 and concluded last spring.

On Monday, those acres will be fenced off, and roadway and track field removal work begins. Some prep work relocating utilities started in the spring. Trees will be cut down in the fall.

It will take about four years to build the Obama complex, which will consist of four buildings, a garage and open space devoted to telling the story of the nation’s first Black president and former first lady Michelle, as well as advancing Obama’s post-presidential agenda.

The most striking structure will be a chunky 235-foot high museum tower.

The complex will also contain an athletic and event center, a forum with a restaurant, an auditorium, recording studios and a Chicago Public Library branch.

A ceremonial groundbreaking will likely take place in the fall.

More details:

UPFRONT MONEY: The deal calls for construction and operating costs to be paid for by the Obama Foundation with money banked up front.

City Hall is allowing the project to go forward with the foundation putting up $485 million in cash, pledges and other commitments to cover actual building costs and $1 million for an endowment.

The price tag for the total project for many years was $500 million. In June, Obama Foundation President Valerie Jarrett, in a speech to the Economic Club of Chicago, said the cost for the complex would be just under $700 million.

An Obama foundation spokesperson said the $700 million sweeps in more costs than the $500 million covered and “includes interiors which refers to exhibits, furniture, digital installations, art, accessibility features and things of that nature.”

The accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche certified to City Hall last February in a report obtained by the Sun-Times that the “hard” construction costs were budgeted at $482 million.

As of Jan. 31, the Obama Foundation had on hand $209 million in cash for the project and $276 million in pledges and commitments, according to Deloitte & Touche.

After the $700 million price tag surfaced, a City Hall official told the Sun-Times the new figure was discussed with the foundation and the city determined the $485 million to cover the “hard costs” was still all the foundation needed to put up.

The initial roadway redevelopments in and around Jackson Park will be funded through $174 million of state money.

THE IRS 990: The latest information on the Obama Foundation financial health and fundraising is contained in its new IRS 990 report, filed annually by tax-exempt organizations. A City Hall official told the Sun-Times the Foundation will deliver the report, covering 2020, on Friday.

In past years, the Obama Foundation by now had released the annual 990 to the public. If the report sparks questions, the “closing” will be delayed, the City Hall official said.

ENDOWMENT/WHY THE CENTER IS NOT A PRESIDENTIAL 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 non-descript 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 Library, the endowment under NARA rules would be 60% of the library cost.

Still, the city deal calls for “an endowment having as its sole purpose of paying, as and when necessary, the costs to operate, enhance and maintain the Presidential Center and the other Project Improvements during the term of the Use Agreement,” which runs 99 years.

The foundation created the $1 million endowment fund this summer. The City Hall official told the Sun-Times that sum was deemed enough. The deal does not detail the endowment amount.

A federal case alleging the federal review clearing the way for the project was flawed is pending.

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