Feds Give Obama Presidential Center Green Light After 4-Year Review

Video: Obama Foundation Chief Engagement Officer Michael Strautmanis talks about the approval and what comes next. (Produced by Evan Garcia)

The Obama Presidential Center can be built in Jackson Park after a federal review that lasted nearly four years concluded the $500 million project will have “no significant impact” on the federally protected park.

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The completion of the review means that the city could start moving utility lines as soon as April, with construction of the four-building campus starting in August, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Wednesday.

“With this final step in the review, Chicago is now officially the home of the presidential center for our country’s first Black president,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “The Obama Presidential Center and nearby capital improvement projects will undoubtedly distinguish our city’s historic South Side as a world-class economic and cultural hub. Through opportunities both created and attracted by these initiatives, residents in the surrounding communities, will have long overdue access to much-needed, sustainable and good-paying jobs and other neighborhood resources.”  

Former President Barack Obama celebrated the green light in a video he posted to Twitter.

Obama said he hoped the center would help Chicago turn the page on the difficulties the city faced in 2020, including the economic catastrophe triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We can unlock the South Side’s fullest potential,” said Obama, who picked Jackson Park as the site of his presidential library in 2016 — and said it would open in 2021, only to watch as it was stymied by federal regulations and lawsuits.

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the groundbreaking “can’t come fast enough.”

Design rendering of the Obama Presidential Center. (Courtesy of The Obama Foundation)Design rendering of the Obama Presidential Center. (Courtesy of The Obama Foundation)

But opponents said the approval feels rushed. 

“A project of this scale of the OPC absolutely requires a full Environmental Impact Statement,” which it’s not receiving, representatives of Jackson Park Watch, a nonprofit community organization opposed to the center's location in Jackson Park, told WTTW News via email. 

Herb Caplan, president of Protect Our Parks, told WTTW News on Wednesday his group would not drop its legal effort to block the center’s construction. The group will appeal a judge’s decision to toss the group’s lawsuit to the Supreme Court and may file a new complaint, Caplan said.

“The defendants have repeated falsely stated that they will be breaking ground on [an] OPC in historic Jackson Park to create the impression that construction is a done deal — when it is far from a conclusion much less a ‘done deal’ in any way [except] in their imagination,” Caplan told WTTW in an email.

(Courtesy of the Obama Foundation)(Courtesy of the Obama Foundation)

The proposed center would include a four-building campus, underground parking facility, plaza, play areas, pedestrian and bicycle paths and landscaped open space in Jackson Park. But the federal review found the Obama Presidential Center would diminish “the historic property’s overall integrity by altering historic, internal spatial divisions that were designed as a single entity” by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. 

That required the former president’s foundation to revise its plans to mitigate those adverse impacts on Jackson Park, the Midway Plaisance and the city’s Park Boulevard System. Those plans now meet the requirements of the Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.

“After implementation of the selected alternative, the historic properties will retain enough historic integrity to remain eligible for and listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” according to the finding.

The City Council approved the master agreement, use agreement and environmental agreement between the Obama Foundation and the city in May 2018. The agreement turns over 19.3 acres of city land to the foundation for 99 years for the nominal cost of $10. The city will own the center once it is built, according to the agreement.

READ: South Side Coalition Tells Obama Center Obstructionists: Enough Is Enough

That agreement includes plans to close the southern portion of Midway Plaisance Drive and Cornell Drive and widen south Stony Island Avenue and the northern portion of Midway Plaisance Drive. It also calls for the installation of barrier walls and stop lights on Hayes Drive.

The state budget approved in May 2018 included $174 million to cover the cost of closing the roads through Jackson Park to make way for the center.

The relocation of those roads will mean the loss of parkland and recreational facilities, but the review found that a plan to replace that loss with more than five acres of new parkland and recreational facilities at the east end of the Midway Plaisance was sufficient, according to the finding.

Jackson Park Watch questions whether the state or city can afford such a drain on their budgets in a time of fiscal crisis, and noted: “The Obama Foundation has yet to certify that it has indeed raised the full funds needed for the construction of the OPC and for the endowment to operate and maintain it.”

When the City Council approved plans for the Obama Presidential Center, the former president faced criticism for refusing to sign an agreement with community groups to protect longtime Woodlawn residents from being forced out of their homes by gentrification and to require Black and Latino Chicago residents to be hired to do the work.

Obama rejected those calls, as did Emanuel, his former White House chief of staff.

In September, the City Council unanimously agreed to spend $4.5 million from the city’s affordable housing fund to combat displacement fueled by gentrification. Two-thirds of those funds are earmarked to help Woodlawn residents buy homes — or stay in the homes they already own.

Patty Wetli contributed.

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 3, 2021. It has been updated.

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