The Obama Foundation is finally breaking ground on the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago after years of waiting, litigation, and complaints from residents who say the library will change the character of a historic park while failing to provide a benefit to the surrounding community.
The Chicago Sun-Times reports that “the first pre-construction utility relocation work for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park will start in April, with preliminary roadwork and site preparation to begin as early as August.”
“We know that by working together, we can unlock the South Side’s fullest potential — and help set up our city, our country, and our world for even better years still to come,” former President Barack Obama said in a statement on social media.
The center is expected to cost $500 million, most of it shouldered by private donors to Obama’s presidential foundation. But Illinois residents will be on the hook for $174 million for “roadway changes” so those select streets now crossing through Jackon Park can reroute around the massive, 20-acre Obama library campus.
Obama, of course, left office in 2016, and construction was supposed to start in the fall of 2018, but there were issues with the library’s location — specifically that Obama was building a permanent structure in a protected, historic park, and that the state of Illinois allowed the construction with a minimal financial contribution from the foundation.
“The federal review was mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act because Obama decided to locate his center in Jackson Park, a site of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The park was designed by famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux,” the Sun-Times reported Wednesday. “The park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.”
Illinois extended the Obama foundation a 99-year lease on its area of the park for just a dollar, and a number of groups objected to the easy transfer. They also objected to the city’s and state’s decision to allow the Obama Foundation to dig up areas of the park for the oversized library.
“A nonprofit group called Protect our Parks has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that this violates state law,” the Wall Street Journal reported in 2018. “The suit calls the Obama Center a ‘bait and switch,’ since the ‘public purpose’ of a presidential library no longer exists.”
Protect Our Parks noted, as others have, that the Obama’ presidential “library” will not be a “library” in the traditional sense since, unlike past presidents, Obama’s records are mostly digital. Instead of his archives, then, the Obama Center will feature community activities, a “virtual” research center, and plenty of green space.
Protect Our Parks says it may file a new lawsuit before construction on the project officially begins.
Although Obama selected Chicago for his presidential library, he did not move to his adopted hometown after leaving the White House. The Obama family, instead, purchased a home in New England.