The Obama Presidential Center Clears Its Final Hurdle And Will Break Ground This Year

Obama with OPC plans
In this May 3, 2017, file photo, former President Barack Obama speaks at a community event on the Obama Presidential Center at the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago. The Obama Foundation announced Wednesday that it will break ground on the $500 million project this year. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
Obama with OPC plans
In this May 3, 2017, file photo, former President Barack Obama speaks at a community event on the Obama Presidential Center at the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago. The Obama Foundation announced Wednesday that it will break ground on the $500 million project this year. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

The Obama Presidential Center Clears Its Final Hurdle And Will Break Ground This Year

After years of delays, the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) on Chicago’s South Side is ready for groundbreaking.

The Federal Highway Administration and National Park Service completed a four-year review to determine the impact of the center on roadways and in the public Jackson Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Today, with the conclusion of a careful federal review process that spanned several years, we’re ready to get to work. Through this process, we’ve shown that our plans for the Obama Presidential Center — including new gardens, playgrounds, walking trails, and bike paths for all to enjoy — won’t just preserve historic Jackson Park, they’ll bring opportunity and breathe new life into the community we love,” President Barack Obama said in a video released Wednesday.

The center — celebrating the nation’s first Black president — is a campus that will include a museum, public library branch, forum and children’s play area with a price tag of $500 million. The Obama Foundation announced that the groundbreaking will take place this year.

“It will be a catalyst for economic development and there are real benefits that will come from it — amenities to the park and jobs. It’s really a good day,” said Michael Strautmanis, vice president of civic engagement for the Obama Foundation. According to the foundation’s impact study, the OPC is expected to have an economic impact of $3.1 billion and to bring 700,000 visitors from around the world to the South Side each year.

The foundation said it is committed to awarding 50% of the subcontracting packages to diverse vendors, which exceeds the city’s goal of 26% for minority vendors. The prediction is that the OPC will generate up to 5,000 direct and indirect jobs during and after construction.

It’s been a long road to groundbreaking. The center faced a lawsuit from a parks advocacy group that sought to stop construction. A federal judge dismissed the case in 2019. Community groups wanted the Obama Foundation to sign a community benefits agreement. Last year, the city council approved a housing ordinance in nearby Woodlawn that offers sweeping affordable housing protections.

Now that the federal review is complete, various city departments can work on capital improvements and road changes. Relocating utility lines is supposed to start in April.

But the OPC won’t be completed for another four years.

Lori Healey, who serves as the project’s implementation lead, said the construction is complex.

“It is a long and technical process. It’s not like a typical high rise where you put your form up. It’s an artistic implementation of an artistic campus. We plan to be there well over 100 years,” Healey said.

In a statement Mayor Lori Lightfoot said: “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.”

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