The Obama Presidential Center broke ground on Tuesday, after five years of opposition from park preservationists and community groups concerned that rising rent prices in the area would force residents to relocate.
Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama were joined by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in ceremonially planting shovels at the center’s proposed site in Jackson Park, along Lake Michigan.
The center will include a museum, forum, public library, plaza, playground, and pedestrian and bicycle paths designed by Todd Williams and Billie Tsien. The Obama Foundation estimated the project would cost $500 million at first, but officials have since stated that the total will most likely be higher.
The location is close to where Barack and Michelle Obama first met, married, and had their daughters. It’s close to the University of Chicago Law School, where Barack used to teach constitutional law. It’s also a few miles from Michelle’s childhood home and several miles from Barack’s previous job as a community organizer. From 1997 to 2004, he served in the Illinois Senate, representing the area.
The Obama Foundation hopes that the center will bring 700,000 people to the South Side each year. Michelle Obama stated that she hoped the center world would attract people from all over the world — and right down the street. She stated that the center will be a place for people to find work, for children to grow and find opportunities, and for families to walk, ride bikes, and go sledding.
The foundation announced the center’s location in 2016, but the project was delayed due to a lengthy federal review process required because Jackson Park is on the National Register of Historic Places. Landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed the park in 1871, and it was remodeled for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. In February, the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration completed their four-year review.
At the ceremony on Tuesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot thanked the Obama Foundation for its “transformative investment” in the city’s South Side. In the five years since the location was announced, the project has “taken many twists and turns,” according to Lightfoot. She did, however, call the groundbreaking a “momentous day.”
For years, several local groups, including park preservationists and a coalition of community organizations, have expressed reservations about the project. Park preservationists have expressed concern about the impact on the historic parkland and have proposed relocating the center to nearby Washington Park.
Since 2018, the nonprofit Protect Our Parks has filed a slew of lawsuits in an attempt to halt construction on the historic parkland. Last month, the group petitioned the United States Supreme Court for an injunction against the project pending an appeal.
Meanwhile, the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition, a coalition of community organizations, has expressed concern that longtime residents in the area surrounding the site will be priced out of their homes. Dixon Romeo, a coalition member, lives four blocks away in the South Shore neighborhood where Michelle Obama grew up. Romeo said he joined the coalition in 2017 and now knocks on doors every weekend to talk to residents about the center.
According to the 2017 report, the majority of residents in the area are renters. According to the report, nearly half of renters have annual incomes of less than $20,000, eviction rates are among the highest in the city, and rent is rising in newly renovated and new construction units, which the majority of current renters cannot afford.
The coalition launched a multi-year campaign demanding a community benefits agreement to protect residents from displacement, and the city and Obama Foundation made a number of promises to address the coalition’s concerns.
Last year, the city passed an ordinance for the Woodlawn neighborhood – the one closest to the center – requiring affordability requirements for all rental and for-sale housing built on city-owned residential land. It also appropriated approximately $4.5 million to assist in the rehabilitation of existing affordable housing. The ordinance also established a “Right of First Refusal Pilot Program” in the neighborhood, which would require the owner of a building with ten or more units to provide tenants with an exclusive opportunity to make an offer on the property before it was sold.
Several other neighborhoods in the area, however, such as Grand Crossing, South Shore, and Hyde Park, have not received comparable provisions.