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.
Construction on the Obama Presidential Center along Lake Michigan, near the Obama family home and where the former president started his political career on Chicago's South Side, officially began last month.
Standing near an excavator and other heavy equipment, Obama described how the city's South Side shaped him, first as a community organizer, then as a husband, father and elected official. He said the center was one way of giving back and he hoped it would bring an economic boost to the area and inspire a future generation of leaders.
“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.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and several city aldermen were among the few people allowed at the event, which was streamed online to limit crowds amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The presidential center will sit on 19 acres (7.7 hectares) of the 540-acre (291-hectare) of Jackson Park, named for the nation's seventh president, Andrew Jackson.
It will be unique among presidential libraries. Obama's presidential papers will be available in digital form. The sprawling campus will include a museum, public library branch, athletic center, test kitchen and children’s play area.
The initial cost was projected at $500 million, but documents released by the Obama Foundation last month showed it is now roughly $830 million. Funds are being raised through private donations.
Organizers estimate about 750,000 visitors will come to the center each year.
Work on the Obama Presidential Center is expected to take about five years. Currently, heavy machinery peppers the site that's fenced off with green tarps.
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 yearslong battle resulting in city-approved neighborhood protections, including for affordable housing.
Some neighborhood activists said Tuesday that they were already seeing rising housing prices and would keep pushing for more protections in surrounding areas. 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.
He chose Chicago over several cities, including Honolulu, where he was born and spent his early years.
It's a part of Chicago that has special significance for the Obamas. The center is near the University of Chicago where Obama taught law and where the Obamas got married and raised their two daughters. 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.”