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Politics

After 5 Years, Obamas to Break Ground on Presidential Center

September 28, 2021

CHICAGO  — After five years of legal battles, gentrification concerns and a federal review, Barack and Michelle Obama were expected to attend a celebratory groundbreaking Tuesday on their legacy project in a lakefront Chicago park.

Construction on the site along Lake Michigan, near the Obama family home and where the former president started his political career on Chicago's South Side, officially began last month. Work on the Obama Presidential Center is expected to take about five years.

The Obamas were scheduled to host an event, which will be streamed online to limit crowds amid the coronavirus pandemic, with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

“With your help, we can make this center a catalyst for economic opportunity, a new world-class destination on the South Side and a platform for young people to drive change,” Obama said in a video announcement ahead of the groundbreaking.

The presidential center, which will sit on 19 acres of the 540-acre Jackson Park, will be unique among presidential libraries.

Obama's presidential papers will be available in digital form. The sprawling campus center will include a museum, public library branch, athletic center, test kitchen and children’s play area.

The initial cost the center was projected at $500 million, but documents released by the Obama Foundation last month showed it is now roughly $830 million. Funds are being raised through private donations.

Progress on the center has been delayed by lawsuits and a federal review required because of the location of Jackson Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. At the same time, fears about displacing Black residents in the area developed into a yearslong battle resulting in city-approved neighborhood protections, including for affordable housing.

Obama chose Chicago over several cities including Honolulu, where he spent his early years. The former president has said he hopes the center will help jumpstart the economic engine of the city’s South Side.

It's a part of the city that has special significance for the Obamas. The center is near the University of Chicago where Obama taught law and where the Obamas got married and raised their two daughters. Michelle Obama also grew up on the South Side.

“When it came time to plan the Obama Presidential Center, we wanted to give something back to the place that gave us so much,” Michelle Obama said in a video announcement.

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