Former president, first lady to attend Obama Presidential Center groundbreaking on South Side

ByEvelyn Holmes and ABC 7 Chicago Digital Team WLS logo
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
Obamas prepare for Presidential Center groundbreaking
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The Obamas are expected to attend a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday at the future site of the Obama Presidential Center.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A South Side plot of land is about to become the site of historical construction.

After years of blueprints and court battles, the first shovels will turn in Jackson Park Tuesday to begin physically building the Obama Presidential Center.

The $500 million facility that has been six years in the making is being built on the South Side, not far from where the Obamas first met and had their family.

The project brings the former president back to the place that launched his political career, speaking to his foundation's scholars ahead of the South Side center's big moment.

RELATED: Former president, first lady to attend Obama library groundbreaking ceremony

"Seeing President Obama come back to Chicago to make sure his roots are rebuilt, it's really exciting to know he picked Chicago and picked the South Side," said Alex Sims, 2012 Obama campaign regional director.

It's near the law school where President Obama taught, and only a few miles from where he worked as a community organizer, and where Michelle grew up.

It's also the area Obama represented in the Illinois Senate from 1997 to 2004.

The former president spoke exclusively to Robin Roberts for Good Morning America Monday morning.

"I am absolutely confident that when this thing is done, people are gonna say, not only will the park have been enhanced but the people who use it are gonna get a different kind of experience. The young person who's growin' up across the street or down the block or, a few miles away, now suddenly have a place where concerts and speeches and debates and forums are taking place that they can access," he told Roberts.

However, the project has not been without roadblocks.

The advocacy group "Protect Our Parks" fought the presidential center plans in federal court over environmental concerns, but in August, a federal judge said they did not meet the requirements for an injunction and denied their motion. The group is now appealing that decision.

Few people dispute the presidential center's intentions.

"I tell people this all the time- Obama, yes, displacement no," said Dixon Romeo with the Volunteer Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition.

The dedicated South Side activists and the voters who elected Barack Obama have argued loudly for protections for the community's lifelong residents and the environment of Jackson park.

"We are not against the center but the center is supposed to benefit the South Side, that's got to mean the South Side residents that have been there for all this time," Romeo said.

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Blue Line trains in both directions were stopped Sunday evening at Illinois Medical District due to a pedestrian walkway collapse.
Courtesy of Beth Burghgraef

"It reminds me of the deforestation pictures that they show of the rainforest. It absolutely looks totally decimated," said Bren Sheriff with Protect Our Parks. "And that is going to be the view we're going to have for many years going forth."

In September, the city adopted an ordinance for the Woodlawn neighborhood, mandating affordability requirements on all rental and for-sale housing. Still, some have ongoing concerns about the center's impact on poor Black and brown neighborhoods.

Although, for other longtime residents, this is a huge moment for Chicago's South Side.

"He could have put the library anywhere, so to know, he wanted to make sure economic development was here and that organizing here is really exciting," Sims said.

The center will not only house a museum, forum, public library and plaza, but also a playground and pedestrian and bike paths. The Obama Foundation hopes it will bring some 700,000 people to the South Side every year.

Roughly 5,000 jobs are expected to be created by the project, and the Concrete Collective contracted two African American-owned firms to work on the site.

On the eve of one of his biggest milestones in post-presidential life, the 44th president huddled virtually with former staffers, reflecting on the stories and people that lead up to this moment.

While reflecting on the past, the former president and first lady are also focusing on what's ahead, including meeting with the foundation's scholars and emerging leaders -- the people who they hope might help lead their namesake center one day.

Construction is expected to take four years to complete.

Traffic Changes

Cornell Drive will be narrowed from six lanes to four lanes between 59th Street and Hayes Drive and the easternmost block of South Midway Plaisance between Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive will be permanently closed.

Drivers who previously used South Midway Plaisance to connect to Cornell Drive will be redirected to an alternative route. The center says that the long-term traffic plan for the area is for North Midway Plaisance to be converted to two-way traffic, and eastbound motorists will then be able to drive "up" North Midway Plaisance from Stony Island Avenue to Cornell Drive. There will be a new signalized intersection at North Midway Plaisance and Cornell Drive.