Obama Presidential Center passes review, will break ground later this year on Chicago’s South Side

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Obama Presidential Center passes review, will break ground later this year on Chicago’s South Side

The Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects-designed complex will feature a a 235-foot-tall granite-clad museum tower and landscapes by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. (Courtesy Obama Foundation)

Following an epically drawn-out federal regulatory review process first launched in November 2017 and design and planning phases suffused with controversy, community pushback, and legal challenges, construction work on the Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA)-designed Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s historic Jackson Park will, at long last, commence later this year according to an announcement released today by the Obama Foundation. In July, AN had reported that the federal review was finally nearing the finish line.

The announcement came in the form of a video message from the former president himself shared on the Foundation’s social media accounts:

The past 12 months have been among the most challenging in our history. I know they’ve hit Chicago hard, particularly for residents on the South and West sides who have shouldered devastating health consequences from COVID-19, faced higher unemployment rates, and more.

But hopefully, 2021 offers a turning point for our nation and our city. And we also hope that the groundbreaking of the Obama Presidential Center can be an important part of that change.

The Center will create jobs and economic opportunity, especially for South Side residents—because we believe the team that’s building the Center should look like the community it calls home. And through the museum, the Center will be a place to honor history while inspiring young people to write chapters of their own — giving them the tools, resources, and connections they need to create change in their own communities.

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.

In conjunction with the Obama Foundation’s announcement, the office of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot also released a statement addressing the news, stating that several city entities—namely the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, Department of Housing, Department of Transportation, Park District, and Public Library—will now move forward with capital improvement projects in communities surrounding the nearly 20-acre site within Jackson Park, an over 500-acre swath of parkland on the South Side of Chicago designed by Olmsted and Vaux and originally developed as the host venue for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

“With this final step in the review, Chicago is now officially the home of the presidential center for our country’s first Black president,” said Lightfoot 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.”

Per a news report from the Chicago Sun-Times, the Obama Foundation was alerted by City Hall earlier today that the review process had finally concluded, allowing construction work to begin in earnest. A formal groundbreaking is expected in early fall, Lori Healey, the former CEO of the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority who is now overseeing Obama Presidential Center construction, told the Sun-Times. In the nearer future, the city will commence required utility work at Jackson Park including rerouting sewer, water, and electrical lines starting in April.

The OPC—pointedly not a formal presidential library as to circumvent design restrictions and other rules imposed by the National Archives and Records Administration—will be privately funded and maintained. Construction work on the $500 million project is expected to last four years.

This is a breaking news story. AN will add further details and reactions as we learn more.