Chicago’s Obama Presidential Center seems no closer to breaking ground as local politicians, preservationists, federal officials, and community groups continue to come to grips with the controversial project and the possible effects it may have on its historic South Side surroundings.
The Obama Foundation first announced its site in Jackson Park back in 2016 and hoped to break ground in late 2018 after gaining city approvals that spring. Two years later, there is still no firm timeline for when the $500 million development will start construction—let alone open.
The absence of an official schedule highlights uncertainties raised by an ongoing federal review, triggered by the proposed center’s location in a significant park that was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and served as the site of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Last summer, a report completed by the review’s consulting parties found that the project would have an adverse effect on the park. An updated, more recent report said the multi-building campus and its associated road realignments would also negatively impact the historic Chicago Park Boulevard System, which includes portions of Jackson Park and nearby Midway Plaisance.
Determining that there is an “adverse effect” isn’t enough to completely block the center from moving forward, but it does require the time-consuming process of working with the various consulting parties to come up with measures to minimize any harmful impacts on these historic landscapes. Responses to the updated findings are due this spring, according to the city.
“The message [of the report] is clear,” noted the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, a group that ultimately supports the center and its location in Jackson Park. “The Obama Presidential Foundation, its architects, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration had better get this right.”
The city hopes to conclude the review process this summer, according to a timeline shared by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development. Until these processes are completed and any outstanding issues resolved, construction on the center cannot begin.
Federal agencies haven’t been the only obstacle standing in the Obama Center’s path. In 2018, a local nonprofit environmental group called Protect Our Parks filed a federal lawsuit against the $500 million development, claiming that transferring public land to a private entity for private use is prohibited by law. A judge later dismissed the suit, but that decision could be appealed.
The legal challenge also revealed alternative South Side sites that were under consideration by the Obama Foundation. These included locations on private land that could have avoided the level of scrutiny and controversy associated with the Jackson Park site.
“If the Obama Presidential Center had chosen a privately-owned development site... it would be open for visitors today,” wrote advocacy group Preservation Chicago. “The second choice option is across from Washington Park. It requires no federal review, no massive road rebuilding, and no special deals with [the] city of Chicago.”
The delay has allowed the team behind the center to tweak the plan. In October, project designer Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates published updated renderings of the 20-acre campus. The images include new views of the center’s towering museum building, a branch of the Chicago Public Library, an athletic facility, wetlands, and a playground.
Some local community members have expressed anxiety about the slow-moving process jeopardizing the expected economic benefits and jobs associated with the project. Other residents have pushed the Obama Foundation for a formal Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) to protect neighbors from rising rents, rampant gentrification, and the threat of displacement.
Last summer, a coalition of Chicago alderman introduced a CBA ordinance at City Council. If approved, the measure would require greater community engagement and a higher percentage of affordable housing in new developments near the center. Some stakeholders, including the University of Chicago, have expressed concerns that the ordinance could restrict new investment in the area, reported the Chicago Maroon.
In mid-January, the city’s Department of Housing shed some light on its own plans to preserve affordable housing and keep homeowners from being priced out of neighborhoods like Woodlawn.
The department has yet to publish a draft of its ordinance, but tells Crain’s that the legislation will extend three-fifths of a mile from the proposed center. The measure could include stricter guidelines for developing affordable or mix-income housing on nearby city-owned land, grants to assist homeowners with repairs, financial assistance for rehabbing existing vacant buildings, and additional protections for current renters should landlords decide to sell.
“We appreciate the thorough analysis being conducted by the federal agencies and the participation of dozens of stakeholders around the city,” said an Obama Foundation spokesperson in a statement to the Chicago Tribune in December 2019. “We join many in Chicago in feeling the urgency to bring the OPC to the South Side and are eager to see this process through its completion.”