Pre-construction at Chicago’s Jackson Park kicks off ahead of Obama Presidential Center groundbreaking

Wheels In Motion

Pre-construction at Chicago’s Jackson Park kicks off ahead of Obama Presidential Center groundbreaking

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)

Earlier today, city and state officials announced the start of pre-construction work at the future Barack Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Chicago’s historic Jackson Park. Former President Obama himself helped to break the news, tweeting: “Michelle and I are 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 formal groundbreaking of the OPC, a 20-acre complex anchored by a Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects-designed museum building with landscapes by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, is set for this fall. In February, the $500 million project—certainly no stranger to myriad controversies, concerns, and court battles during the design and planning stages—exited a four-year federal regulatory review process, signaling that work could finally begin.

While the long-awaited kick-off of pre-construction at the actual OPC campus is one thing, today’s announcement also means that larger infrastructural and public space improvements around the future center will also officially begin.

This preliminary work commencing this month will largely, but not exclusively, focus on utility fixes, including the relocating of utility lines, as well as major transportation upgrades in the area such as road improvements and other overhauls identified in a comprehensive plan created by the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) following a community engagement process that involved South Side residents and local stakeholders.

As detailed in a news announcement released by the office of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the transportation plan will “improve the safety and comfort for all modes of travel, with an emphasis on people walking and biking to and through Jackson Park” while also providing “more and better-connected green space in Jackson Park by closing roadways.” Impacted roadways include Cornell Drive between Hayes Drive and 59th Street, which will be replaced with a large replacing them with generous pathways that link that to well-lit underpasses that “eliminate the need to cross roadways such as Hayes Drive when moving through the park.”

“The transportation plan for Jackson Park and the communities around the new Obama Presidential Center will leave a legacy of improvements whether you bike, walk, use your car, or take public transit,” said CDOT Commissioner Gia Biagi, in a statement. “By creating new parkland and pedestrian underpasses, these mobility improvements will make it safer and easier to get around the park and ensure that you will be able to get where you need to go, even with increased future traffic demands.”

What’s more, an array of additional safety-enhancing modifications and upgrades are planned for the park including the addition of new traffic lanes on Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue and the implementation of improvements at notorious local traffic bottleneck areas, which will receive new and modified traffic signals, revamped crosswalks, and accessible pedestrian signals according to Lightfoot’s office. The larger transportation-related overhauls at Jackson Park are expected to begin this summer and are made possible by $174 million in funding provided by the State of Illinois. In total, the various improvement and upgrades to take place in and around Jackson Park in advance of the OPC are expected to cost north of $200 million.

Recommendations made within the Streets for Cycling 2020 plan will also be implemented including off-street trail and pedestrian underpasses improvements. The existing trail network within the park will also be extended.

Outside of transportation- and utility-related upgrades, numerous public recreation enhancements and additions will now begin work, including a new track and field facility complete with a new artificial turf running track that’s set to open this summer. The Chicago Parks Department will also begin the design and community outreach processes for several planned projects including the renovation of the Iowa Building, a WPA-era limestone pavilion, the relocation of an existing dog park, a new South Shore beach house, and upgraded baseball and softball diamonds.

Chicago’s Department of Housing (DOH) and Planning and Development (DPD) are also working together to implement “multiple community-driven resources to coordinate future private investment in areas near the future Obama Presidential Center.” Among other things, existing affordable housing in the vicinity of the National Register of Historic Places-listed Jackson Park will gain $10 million earmarked for rehabilitation efforts under the expansive Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance, a neighborhood-protecting measure that was approved last September by Chicago’s City Council.

“The Obama Presidential Center, coupled with essential investment from the City of Chicago in and around Jackson Park, will be a beacon of hope and a catalyst for additional development nearby,” said Valerie Jarrett, president of the Obama Foundation. “We will create new economic opportunities for South Side residents, enrich an historic park for both our neighbors and visitors to enjoy, as well as inspire, prepare and connect the next generation of leaders to solve the challenges that we face here in Chicago and around the world.”

Originally slated to open in 2021, The Obama Presidential Center is expected to take four years to complete. Former President Obama, a former South Side community organizer and U.S. senator from Illinois, had first selected Jackson Park as the site for a future presidential center in 2017 but, as mentioned, the project has been mired with setbacks. (Relatedly, as Chicago and state officials began spreading the word about the latest progress today, Protect Our Parks, a grassroots conservation group attempting to halt the project, filed a new legal complaint in federal court.)

Last month, the Obama Foundation announced the OPC Construction Workforce Initiative, which establishes a commitment to creating a construction workforce in which at least 35 percent of workers hired will hail from “targeted areas” within Chicago’s West and South Sides, both of which have significant Black and brown populations.