Work Begins in Jackson Park to Pave the Way for Obama Presidential Center

Video: At long last, construction is getting started. But legal action could still put it to a stop. Amanda Vinicky reports for “Chicago Tonight.” 

Nearly five years after former President Barack Obama picked Jackson Park for his presidential library, Chicago and Illinois leaders celebrated Wednesday as work finally began to transform the historic South Side park into the home of the $500 million Obama Presidential Center.

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Originally scheduled to open to the public in 2021, the center was delayed by lawsuits — which have yet to be fully resolved — and a federal review that ultimately concluded in February that the four-building project would have “no significant impact” on the federally protected park.

Obama said in a statement that he and former first lady Michelle Obama were “thrilled to be one step closer to bringing the Obama Presidential Center to the South Side of Chicago. We hope it will help lift up the South Side and breathe new life into Jackson Park and the surrounding communities.”

The first task is for city crews to start moving utility lines and closing roads through Jackson Park to make way for the center, officials said. A formal groundbreaking on the center itself is expected in the fall, and construction is expected to take four years.

Plans call for the southern portion of Midway Plaisance Drive and Cornell Drive to be closed. In addition, south Stony Island Avenue and the northern portion of Midway Plaisance Drive will be widened. Barrier walls and stoplights will be installed 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 5 acres of new parkland and recreational facilities at the east end of the Midway Plaisance was sufficient, according to the finding.

Obama has 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.

“Through the creation of jobs, infrastructure enhancements and more, these investments and economic developments will bring about the transformative change our Black and brown communities deserve,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement.

The proposed center would include a four-building campus, branch library, 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. 

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

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.

Despite the celebration by state and city officials, the organization Protect Our Parks, which is fighting plans for the center, has vowed to appeal a judge’s decision to toss the group’s lawsuit to the Supreme Court and said it would file a new complaint Wednesday, said Herb Caplan, the group’s president.

Given the ongoing litigation, Wednesday’s news conference — which was announced only 90 minutes before it started — was “agitprop disinformation,” Caplan told WTTW News in an email.

The Obama Foundation expects the center and its construction will create 5,000 jobs. Foundation officials have vowed to set aside 35% of construction jobs for residents of surrounding communities, including Woodlawn, Austin and Englewood. 

There are also plans in place to train 400 new apprentices from the city’s South and West sides through the building trade unions, officials said.

In addition, the Obama Foundation has promised to set aside half of the projects for firms owned by female, Black and Latino Chicagoans, nearly double the city’s goals.

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]

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