CHICAGO - People peeping at cherry blossoms in Jackson Park Wednesday afternoon were pleased to hear work is finally about to begin on the Obama Presidential Center.
Pre-construction site preparation is underway, including relocation of utility service lines.
"I am a tour guide in Chicago," said Joe Sadowski, of Tours by Joe. "And people are constantly asking, ‘Where is the Obama Center going?’ So it's got interest all over the world really!"
Barack and Michelle Obama initially hoped their center would open in 2021. But construction was delayed by four years because of lawsuits and administrative reviews.
The Obamas will pay for construction of their center with hundreds of millions of dollars they’ve raised from private donors.
State and local taxpayers are spending at least $174 million to improve access to Jackson Park and to upgrade the historic landscape designed in the 19th century by Frederic Law Olmsted, the man who also designed Central Park in New York City.
Chicago plans to restore a slice of Jackson Park that was buried by a six-lane highway a half-century ago.
The decision by then-Mayor Richard J. Daley sparked angry protests, with some South Side residents chaining themselves to trees in a futile effort to protect them from the bulldozers.
Now, controversial Cornell Drive will be torn up.
"That’s five new acres of parkland as part of this campus," said Gia Biagi, commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Transportation. "It’s a dramatic improvement that will really make better connections for pedestrians and cyclists. And it will create that world-class destination right here on the South Side."
Biagi said the goal is creation of a South Side museum campus stretching from the Museum of Science and Industry to the Obama Presidential Center and on to the University of Chicago, which includes several museums and cultural institutions of its own.
Former first lady Michelle Obama grew up a short distance south of the Jackson Park site. She and the former president promise the center will tell not only their story, but stories of the South Side and of Chicago, as well.
"This complex will exemplify the Obama Foundation's commitment to being a place for the community, as much as a space within it," said Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker.
Marty Nesbitt, chairman of the board of the Obama Foundation, indicated a formal groundbreaking ceremony will likely be held this fall. Construction is expected to take four years.
Once open, estimates are the Obama Presidential Center will attract 700,000 visitors a year from all over the world.