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Obama Presidential Center heads to City Hall for important Plan Commission vote

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The South Side project’s organizers are ready to formalize their plan with the City of Chicago

Image by DBOX for The Obama Foundation

After twelve months of public presentations, negotiations, and design tweaks, the Chicago’s Obama Presidential Center is ready to take its first formal step towards breaking ground in Jackson Park on the city’s South Side.

The transformative—and, to some, controversial—development will go before the Chicago Plan Commission on May 17 for approval. The center isn’t just the most attention-grabbing project on the city’s agenda—it’s the only development scheduled to be heard this month.

The commissioners will vote on several resolutions including a recommendation that the city approve a long-term ground lease of 19.3 acres of parkland to the Obama Foundation. Another measure would approve the various road closures, realignments, and right-of-way improvements associated with the project.

According to its zoning documents, the center will retain the 235-foot-tall tower designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. The taller structure will be surrounding multi-purpose public spaces including a community center, neighborhood garden, and athletic facility. The center’s underground garage will be contain a maximum of 450 vehicular spaces.

Although the Obama Foundation has opted to digitize the 44th president’s documents instead of storing them in a traditional archive, the proposed South Side facility will still contain a physical library. On Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the center will include a new branch location for the Chicago Public Library system.

Given that last month’s meeting—which has nothing to do with center—was disrupted by nearly two dozen activists protesting the Obama Foundation’s refusal to enter a formalized community benefits agreement with the surrounding neighborhoods, it’s a safe bet to assume the May 17 meeting will be a lively one.

If the Plan Commission gives the Obama Presidential Center a collective thumbs up, the project will go before the full Chicago City Council for final approval. If everything goes smoothly—including an ongoing federal review of the center’s potential adverse effects on Jackson Park’s historic landscape—the center aims to break ground later this year and targets a 2021 opening.