Obama Presidential Center project clears federal review

$500M complex expected to draw visitors, developers to South Side

Chicago /
Feb.February 04, 2021 10:05 AM
President Barack Obama and a rendering of the Obama Presidential Center (Getty)

Former President Barack Obama and a rendering of the Obama Presidential Center (Getty)

More than four years after plans were unveiled to build the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, a federal review of the project has been completed, paving the way for a groundbreaking later this year.

The years-long environmental review found the $500 million construction and surrounding road repairs would not have a significant impact on the area, the Chicago Tribune reported, citing city officials and the Obama Foundation. A groundbreaking could happen in August, and initial work could start as early as April, according to the report.

Former President Barack Obama announced the news in a video posted to his Twitter account Wednesday, saying “the center will create jobs and economic opportunity, especially for South Side residents.”

“We know that by working together, we can unlock the South Side’s fullest potential,” he added.

The project has served as a source of pride for Chicago with the promise of drawing thousands of visitors each year. It could also open up opportunities for multifamily investors and developers to build in the area.

But it has also received pushback from residents in surrounding Woodlawn, who fear it will contribute to gentrification, with rising home prices making the neighborhood increasingly unaffordable. In July, city officials negotiated a deal that will require developers to include affordable housing for projects on city-owned property in Woodlawn. The agreement, worked out with residents and the local alderman, will also provide up to $20,000 in funding for home improvement work to some homeowners.

The city hailed Wednesday’s announcement as a “major milestone,” according to the report, and touted the investments that would follow, leading to more jobs and improved infrastructure. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the center will “distinguish our city’s historic South Side as a world-class economic and cultural hub.”

The federal reviews were conducted through the National Environmental Policy Act and are related to a process to measure the center’s effect on protected parkland. Jackson Park is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In an interview with Crain’s, Obama Foundation chief engagement officer Michael Strautmanis responded to the timing of the review’s completion, coming two weeks after former President Donald Trump left office and President Joe Biden was sworn in.

“I am not going to look to see why we got this now, at this point,” he told the publication. “I just know that we’re here, and it’s been a long road to get here, and I’m ready to get started.” [Tribune, Crain’s] — Alexi Friedman


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