After Five Years, Two Lawsuits And A Federal Review, Obamas Break Ground On Presidential Center

“This day has been a long time coming,” Barack Obama said Tuesday during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Obama Presidential Center.

Barack and Michelle Obama during the OPC groundbreaking ceremony
Former President Barack Obama, left, and former first lady Michelle Obama toss shovels of dirt during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Obama Presidential Center Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Jackson Park on Chicago's South Side. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
Barack and Michelle Obama during the OPC groundbreaking ceremony
Former President Barack Obama, left, and former first lady Michelle Obama toss shovels of dirt during a groundbreaking ceremony for the Obama Presidential Center Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Jackson Park on Chicago's South Side. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

After Five Years, Two Lawsuits And A Federal Review, Obamas Break Ground On Presidential Center

“This day has been a long time coming,” Barack Obama said Tuesday during the groundbreaking ceremony for the Obama Presidential Center.

When former President Barack Obama approached the stage near mounds of dirt in Chicago’s Jackson Park on Tuesday, he smiled at a small private crowd near 61st and Stony Island and said: “this day has been a long time coming.”

It’s been five years since he and wife Michelle Obama selected the public park on the city’s South Side as future home to the Obama Presidential Center (OPC). A federal review and lawsuits delayed construction. The Obamas along with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker symbolically shoveled dirt on Tuesday, but site work began last month.

Obama said Chicago made him believe in the power of place and people, which shaped the vision for the OPC.

“We are about to break ground on what will be the world’s premier institution for developing civic leaders across fields, across disciplines and, yes, across the political spectrum — a forum for those who want to strengthen democratic ideals and foster active citizenship,” Obama said. “A campus right here on the South Side where we hope to convene, support and empower the next generation of leaders not just in government and public service, but also those who intend to bring about change through the arts, or journalism, or who want to start businesses that are inclusive, socially responsible, and responsive to the challenges of our time.”

The OPC will house a presidential museum, forum with community space, athletic center and a branch of the Chicago Public Library. The area will include a vegetable garden, sledding area and open space. Construction is expected to be completed in 2025.

“We envision this is a place where residents and visitors from all over the world come together and restore the promise of the people’s park,” Obama said.

The couple has said Jackson Park is special to them. It’s near where Michelle Obama grew up in South Shore and close to where the couple lived and grew their own family.

“This center is not about us. It’s not about me and Barack. It’s about the generations that came before us, the folks who did that heavy lifting, the ones who made Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama possible,” Michelle Obama said. “It’s about reimagining this beautiful park. It’s about making it a place that welcomes people in not just folks from around the world, but families like mine who live right down the street. It’s also about supporting the existing restaurants and stores, the neighborhood organizations, the schools, the churches that are the lifeblood of this community, and therefore the lifeblood of the city and the state.”

The Obama Foundation, which is behind building the center honoring the nation’s first Black President, estimates $3.1 billion dollars in economic activity and thousands of jobs. It’s been touted as a catalyst for businesses to thrive along 63rd Street. Earlier this year, the foundation announced a workforce initiative for jobs and contracts for the center. The goals are for 35% of the construction workforce to come from neighborhoods such as Woodlawn, Austin and Englewood. The foundation said it’s committed to 50% of the project’s sub-contracts going to minorities, which is double the city’s goal.

But there have been concerns that the OPC will displace long-time Black residents from nearby communities. Dixon Romeo is a South Shore resident and works with the community benefits coalition instrumental in ensuring protections.

“We’re not against the center. But if there are no protections put in place, the center will create a focal point and will create gravity that will suck in folks who do not have the best into the community at heart,” Romeo said. He and others want to know when those protections will activate amid rising home prices.

Last year, the Chicago City Council passed the Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance, which will create affordable homeownership and rental properties for low-income families on city-owned land. The city housing department said Woodlawn is a target area for a program that provides financial assistance for the purchase or refinance of multi-family residential buildings in exchange for affordable rental covenants for a ​15-year term. The department said it is meeting with Woodlawn property owners the first week of October to recruit participants.

The city said the vacant lot program will be launched in 2022. Tenants also have the first right to refusal in Woodlawn, if an owner of a building with 10 units or more wants to sell. Romeo said those types of programs need to extend to South Shore.

Meanwhile, some park preservationists who oppose the OPC in Jackson Park say they are not giving up. On two occasions, they’ve filed a lawsuit to stop the project, and each time a federal judge has tossed it out. But they say they plan to continue the legal route.

During the groundbreaking on Tuesday, an airplane flew over the site with a banner that said: “stop cutting down trees. Move OPC.”

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.