OPC Announces Plans To Break Ground in April, Begin Construction in August

Following four years of federal review and community criticism, the Obama Foundation will move forward with the $500 million construction project and begin recruiting employees.

A digital rendering of the proposed plan for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC).

Obama Foundation

A digital rendering of the proposed plan for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC).

By Kate Mabus

On Wednesday, February 3, former president Barack Obama announced via video message that his foundation will begin construction on the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) after receiving approval from the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration to build in Jackson Park. Construction is slated to begin in summer 2021.

The federal review process launched in 2017 to inspect the OPC’s impact on the environment and the surrounding Woodlawn neighborhood. Jackson Park—the site for the presidential library and museum complex—is on the National Register of Historic Places, which requires federal approval for any construction project under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. The OPC will occupy a 19.3-acre area of the 551 acre parkland.

The city has scheduled pre-construction work, such as relocating pipes and electric cables, for April and plans to begin construction as early as August. Construction costs, including those to redevelop parkland, are estimated to be $500 million.

Since construction plans were announced in 2016, some South Side organizations, such as Protect Our Parks (POP), have vocally criticized the OPC, citing concerns that the complex will destroy park space and disrupt traffic on South Cornell Drive.

Other South Siders and community groups have opposed the OPC on the grounds that it will accelerate gentrification. Throughout 2018 and 2019, community organizers demanded that the Obama Foundation and the City of Chicago sign a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that would preserve affordable housing and establish a community trust fund to offset the negative impacts of the OPC.

Obama and his foundation have been steadfast in their refusal to sign a CBA, arguing that the center will improve the South Side’s economy. In its February 3 announcement, the Obama Foundation called the complex “a catalyst for long-overdue investment in and around historic Jackson Park.” The OPC is expected to attract roughly 700,000 visitors each year and have a $3.1 billion economic impact on Cook County, per a publication by the Obama Foundation.

Some provisions of the CBA were won in September when the city council passed the Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance to better accommodate the neighborhood and preserve park space.

The OPC has committed to maintaining 90 percent of Jackson Park as a free and publicly accessible green space. It will also include a branch of the Chicago Public Library, a fruit and vegetable garden to mirror former first lady Michelle Obama’s White House garden, and a recreation center.

The OPC expects to create up to 5,000 jobs, including “direct and indirect jobs during and after construction,” according to the Obama Foundation. The Obama Foundation has committed to employing primarily South Side residents and has promised to award 50 percent of subcontracting packages to diverse, minority, and women-owned businesses. In his video message, Obama said, “We believe the team that’s building the center should look like the community it calls home.”

Despite the approval for construction the OPC received from the federal government, some community groups are still unwilling to let the Obama Foundation break ground on the center. In an interview with The Maroon, POP president Herb Caplan expressed his confidence that the group will be able to block the construction on legal grounds.

“Not only has the pending lawsuit not reached a final conclusion, but we’re also planning to file additional lawsuits,” Caplan said.

According to Caplan, POP has drafted a complaint under the Federal Administrative Review Act contesting the findings of the federal review, which it plans to file with the Supreme Court.

“Instead of an end to a litigation, there's going to be more litigation. And as a consequence of all of the pending litigation, the Obama Center, the city, the [Chicago] Park District will have no rights to start construction. Certainly, there will be no groundbreaking in April.”