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Obamas unveil presidential center design: ‘It’s about hope’

A model of the Obama Presidential Center. | Photo of rendering by Tina Sfondeles/Sun-Times

Former President Barack Obama on Wednesday unveiled plans for his Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, where he said his goal — along with former first lady Michelle — is to “create something for the future, something that looked forward, not backwards.”

“It’s about hope. It’s about belief. It’s about a story that our kids tell themselves when they see a world-class institution in their community, populated by people who come from their community, then they have a sense of importance,” Obama said at the South Shore Cultural Center. “And that ultimately is what I want to give back because that’s what Chicago gave to me.”

Flanked by drawings and renderings of the center, Obama discussed the project with the former first lady seated in the front row. Obama also announced the former first couple will donate $2 million to fund a summer jobs program in Chicago.

Michelle and Barack Obama appeared Wednesday at the South Shore Cultural Center, along with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (right). | Maria Cardona/Sun-Times

The design includes three buildings: a museum, auditorium and library. But it also features a restaurant, community garden, a children’s play area and potentially an athletic field. Newly formed hills could also create an area for sledding. The buildings will be made of stone, with natural light opportunities created by multiple glass windows. The center will be built in Jackson Park just south of the Museum of Science and Industry.

Obama said the goal of the campus is to “train the next generation of leadership” so “they can take up the torch and lead the process of change in the future.”

“What we want this to be is the world-premiere institution for training young people and leadership to make a difference in their communities, in their country and in the world,” Obama said.


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Obama said displays and exhibits will focus not just on his presidency “but all the people who led to my presidency — the process of struggle and the process of overcoming that I stand on top of.” But he said there’s a need for some glitz: “Let’s face it. You all want to see Michelle’s dresses.”

A laid-back Obama talked of his hopes for basketball on the campus, food trucks, barbecue grills atop a potential parking garage, and a film and recording studio so artists like Chance the Rapper, Bruce Springsteen and Spike Lee can come talk about how to make art with social commentary. And he spoke of a lookout point in the main building, where South Side children can see sweeping views of the skyline and Lake Michigan.

Obama said he wants it to be a place where people can bring their families and enjoy the lakefront and park system in a way Chicagoans enjoy it in more affluent areas. He called it a “transformational project” for the South Side.

Obama said it will take four years to construct, but he plans to start programs as soon as this year.

As designed, the presidential center campus would require that Cornell Drive be closed — which is sure to draw some ire from drivers who use it to link to Lake Shore Drive.

Architect Dina Griffin (left) and Michael Stautmanis (right) listen to Barack Obama speak at the South Shore Cultural Center on Wednesday. | Joshua Lott/Getty Images

“What we have said is, ‘Let’s restore Jackson Park to the original vision and let’s make sure that traffic is accommodated both on Lake Shore Drive as well as down along 59th Street,’ ” Obama said.

Obama said traffic studies have shown the closure may add one to three minutes to the typical commute, but he added that there is hope to get that down to “zero.”

The center will hire 200 to 300 employees, Obama said, and create 1,400 to 1,500 jobs during construction.

Plans released Wednesday included this map of the Obama Presidential Center site along the Jackson Park lagoon. | Obama Foundation
Obama Foundation

The splashy stone-and-glass structures would cover 200,000 to 225,000-square-feet and be connected underground, with rooftop terraces offering Lake Michigan views, the Obama Foundation said.

And in keeping with the Obamas’ desire to make the complex a part of the everyday life of the neighborhood, the Foundation said it is exploring the potential of installing a Chicago Public Library branch on the site.

The Obama Center architects, the husband-and-wife team of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, were at the unveiling, as well as a host of city and state elected officials, mainly from the South Side communities surrounding the Center.

Architect Dina Griffin said the design called for creating just one tall building, and having the others covered with landscaping.

Dina Griffin, one of the Obama Presidential Center architects, joined Barack Obama for Wednesday’s event at the South Shore Cultural Center. | Maria Cardona/Sun-Times

“We want to bring the parks to what they were,” Griffin said.

The architects have been working on the project, to be one of their most significant commissions, since they were appointed last June.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s one-time chief of staff, introduced the former president and credited him for remaining close to his Chicago ties: “President Obama never lost touch with Chicago, his home, and Chicago never lost touch with President Obama.”

Seated in the front row were Obama adviser and friend Valerie Jarrett; Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule; and Michelle Obama’s mother, Marion Robinson.

The Foundation, chaired by Obama’s buddy Marty Nesbitt, is overseeing the design, development and fundraising for the Obama Center and its related programming activities, in the city of Chicago, in the U.S. and around the globe.

The Obama Foundation on Wednesday released the first images of the proposed design for the Obama Presidential Center. | Photo of rendering by Tina Sfondeles/Sun-Times
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