CHICAGO - After five years of legal battles, gentrification concerns and a federal review, Barack and Michelle Obama dug shovels into the ground Tuesday during a celebratory groundbreaking on their legacy project in a lakefront Chicago park.
The Obamas said the Presidential Center is a ‘love letter’ and a ‘thank you note’ to the South Side of Chicago, which is where they met, started their family and where the former president started his political career.
"This day has been a long time coming," Obama said.
The 30-acre project on the west side of Jackson Park will feature four buildings, including a main tower that will house a museum, conference center, classrooms and a branch of the Chicago Public Library.
"We want this center to be more than a static museum or a source of archival research. It won’t just be a collection of campaign memorabilia or Michelle’s ballgowns, although I know everybody will come see those," he joked. "It won’t just be an exercise in nostalgia or looking backwards. We want to look forward."
The $850 million Presidential Center is expected to open sometime in late 2025 and draw about 700,000 people a year to the site.
Progress has been delayed by lawsuits and a federal review required because of the location in 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 years-long battle resulting in city-approved neighborhood protections, including for affordable housing.
But the Obamas said Tuesday it was important to them to build it on Chicago’s South Side. The center is near the University of Chicago where Obama taught law and where the Obamas got married and raised their two daughters.
"I started off right down the street. And the lessons I learned in these neighborhoods ended up shaping the rest of my life," Barack Obama said. "The Obama Presidential Center is our way of showing young people everywhere that they can do the same."
He chose Chicago over several cities, including Honolulu, where he was born and spent his early years.
Michelle Obama also grew up on the South Side.
"This city, this neighborhood courses through my veins and defines me at my very core," she said at the event. "This substantial investment in the South Side will help make the neighborhood where we call home a destination for the entire world."
Environmental advocates have also objected to the location and the loss of green space. During the event, a plane pulled an aerial banner reading, "STOP CUTTING DOWN TREES. MOVE OPC."
Obama, who didn’t take questions during the event, has said over the years that the center will benefit the surrounding area with new jobs and new trees would be planted on the campus.
Work on the Obama Presidential Center is expected to take about five years.