CHICAGO — The Obama Presidential Center broke ground Tuesday after five years of continued pushback from park preservationists and community groups concerned that residents will be displaced by rising rent prices in the area.
"This day has been a long time coming," former President Barack Obama said at a ceremony Tuesday afternoon on Chicago's South Side.
Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama joined Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in ceremoniously planting shovels at the site of the center in Jackson Park, along Lake Michigan.
The center, designed by architects Todd Williams and Billie Tsien, will consist of a museum, forum, public library, plaza, playground and pedestrian and bicycle paths. The Obama Foundation initially estimated the project would cost $500 million, but officials have since said the total will likely be higher.
Obama said the center won’t just be an "exercise in nostalgia" but "the world’s premier institution" for developing the next generation of civic leaders.
"I didn’t start off as president," Obama said. "I started off right down the street. And the lessons I learned in these neighborhoods ended up shaping the rest of my life. The Obama Presidential Center is our way of showing young people everywhere that they can do the same."
The site is near where Barack and Michelle Obama first met, settled down and had their daughters. It's close to the University of Chicago Law School, where Barack taught constitutional law. It's also a few miles from where Michelle grew up and several miles from where Barack worked as a community organizer. He represented the area in the Illinois Senate from 1997 until 2004.
"No matter what I’ve accomplished or who I’ve met or where I’ve gone, one of my greatest honors is being a proud Chicagoan, a daughter of the South Side," Michelle Obama said. "I still lead with that descriptor. I wear it boldly and proudly like a crown."
The Obama Foundation said it hopes the center brings 700,000 people to the South Side every year.
Michelle Obama said she hoped the center world draw people from around the world — and down the street. She said the center will be a place where people can find work, where kids can grow and find opportunities, and where families can walk, ride bikes and go sledding.
"To me, this doesn’t so much feel like building something new. It feels like we’re helping to reveal what has always been here," she said.
President Joe Biden joined the ceremony virtually through a recorded video message. He reflected on election night in Chicago in 2008.
"It’s hard to believe it was almost 13 Novembers ago we gathered in Grant Park to take the first steps on an incredible journey," Biden said, adding, "I can’t wait for the center to open and to share memories of our incredible journey together."
The foundation announced the location of the center in 2016, but the project was delayed by a lengthy federal review process required because Jackson Park is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The park was designed by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1871 and remodeled for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
The National Park Service and Federal Highway Administration concluded their four-year review in February.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke at the ceremony Tuesday and thanked the Obama Foundation for the "transformative investment" in the city's South Side. Lightfoot acknowledged the project "took many twists and turns" in the five years since the location was announced. But she called the groundbreaking a "momentous day."
"This will not only send a ripple effect of economic development through the area but, really, our entire city will benefit from these investments," Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot said it was a priority to ensure that residents "are fully able to participate in the economic development and future of this neighborhood and the community for generation to come."
Several local groups, including park preservationists and a coalition of community organizations, have raised concerns about the project for years. Park preservationists have warned about the effects on the historic parkland and have proposed an alternative location for the center, in nearby Washington Park.
Since 2018, the nonprofit Protect Our Parks has launched a series of lawsuits to try to prevent construction on the historic parkland. Last month, the group asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant an application for an immediate injunction of the project pending an appeal.
"The homecoming of the former President and the First Lady should be a moment of pride for Chicagoans. On this visit, though, we hope they will mourn the devastation of the initial clear-cutting of the mature trees and the destruction of the Women’s Garden in Jackson Park, in addition to the long-term environmental and public health dangers that will ensue," a Protect Our Parks spokesperson said in a statement.
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Meanwhile, a collection of community organizations under the banner of the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition has also voiced concern that longtime residents surrounding the site are at risk of being priced out of their neighborhoods.
Dixon Romeo, a member of the coalition, lives four blocks from the site in the South Shore neighborhood where Michelle Obama grew up. Romeo said he became involved with the coalition in 2017 and knocks on doors every weekend to speak with residents about the center.
"Folks overwhelming are afraid of displacement. They know the neighborhood is going to change, but they want to make sure they can stay and see it," Romeo said.
Area residents are predominantly renters, according to the 2017 report. Nearly half of renters have annual incomes less than $20,000, eviction rates are some of the highest in the city, and rent is rising in newly renovated and new construction units, which the majority of current renters cannot afford, according to the report.
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The coalition launched a years-long campaign demanding a community benefits agreement to protect residents from displacement, and the city and Obama Foundation made a series of promises to address the coalition's concerns.
Last year, the city adopted an ordinance for the Woodlawn neighborhood – the neighborhood closest to where the center will be located – that mandated affordability requirements on all rental and for-sale housing developed on city-owned residential land. It also appropriated about $4.5 million to help rehabilitate existing affordable housing.
The ordinance also created a "Right of First Refusal Pilot Program" in the neighborhood that would require an owner of a building with 10 or more units to give tenants an exclusive opportunity to make an offer on the property prior to its sale.
However, several other neighborhoods in the area – such as Grand Crossing, South Shore and Hyde Park – have not received similar provisions.
"This should be a priority. Without that, it’s the start of a ticking clock of how much longer folks get to stay," Romeo said.
For its part, the foundation committed to awarding 50% of the subcontracting packages for the center to businesses owned by minorities, women or veterans, with 35% of workers living on the South and West Sides. In March, the foundation created a "We Can Build It Consortium" to get more local residents involved in the building trades and committed $850,000 to train 400 apprentices from the South and West Sides.
Romeo said he's concerned that, even for the residents who get the new jobs, the wages won't offset rising rent.
"I think the center is something that, in another universe, I could be excited about. But the reality is, whatever good it does, whatever good it brings, because the city won’t take action and put protections in place, those things will be overshadowed by what I see every day, which is pain."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chicago Obama presidential center breaks ground in Jackson Park