After 5 Years, Obamas Break Ground on Presidential Center

Former president say it's his way of giving back to Chicago's South Side
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 28, 2021 6:13 PM CDT
Obamas Finally Break Ground on Presidential Center
Barack Obama hugs Michelle Obama, during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Obama Presidential Center, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Chicago.   (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

(Newser) – After five years of legal battles, gentrification concerns, and a federal review, Barack and Michelle Obama dug shovels into the ground Tuesday during a celebratory groundbreaking on their legacy project in a lakefront Chicago park. Construction on the Obama Presidential Center along Lake Michigan, near the Obama family home and where the former president started his political career on Chicago's South Side, officially began last month. Standing near an excavator and other heavy equipment, Obama described how the city's South Side shaped him, first as a community organizer, then as a husband, father, and elected official. From the AP:

  • A way of giving back. Obama said the center was one way of giving back and he hoped it would bring an economic boost to the area and inspire a future generation of leaders. "We want this center to be more than a static museum or a source of archival research. It won’t just be a collection of campaign memorabilia or Michelle's ballgowns, although I know everybody will come see those," he joked. "It won’t just be an exercise in nostalgia or looking backwards. We want to look forward."
  • Scaled-back ceremony. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and several city aldermen were among the few people allowed at the event, which was streamed online to limit crowds amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Unique among presidential libraries. The presidential center will sit on 19 acres of the 540-acre Jackson Park, named for the nation's seventh president, Andrew Jackson. It will be unique among presidential libraries. Obama's presidential papers will be available in digital form. The sprawling campus will include a museum, public library branch, athletic center, test kitchen, and children’s play area.
  • Cost estimate has soared. The initial cost was projected at $500 million, but documents released by the Obama Foundation last month showed it is now roughly $830 million. Funds are being raised through private donations.Organizers estimate about 750,000 visitors will come to the center each year. Work on the Obama Presidential Center is expected to take about five years. Currently, heavy machinery peppers the site that's fenced off with green tarps.

  • Controversies. Progress has been delayed by lawsuits and a federal review required because of the location in Jackson Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. At the same time, fears about displacing Black residents in the area developed into a yearslong battle resulting in city-approved neighborhood protections, including for affordable housing. Environmental advocates have also objected to the location and the loss of green space. During the event, a plane pulled an aerial banner reading, "STOP CUTTING DOWN TREES. MOVE OPC." Obama said the center would bring new jobs to the area and new trees will be planted on the campus.
  • South Side means a lot to couple. It's a part of Chicago that has special significance for the Obamas. The center is near the University of Chicago where Obama taught law and where the Obamas got married and raised their two daughters. Michelle Obama also grew up on the South Side. "This city, this neighborhood courses through my veins and defines me at my very core," she said at the event. "This substantial investment in the South Side will help make the neighborhood where we call home a destination for the entire world."
(Read more Obama Presidential Center stories.)

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