Obama always envisioned his center to be an economic engine to revitalize the South Side — where ex-first lady Michelle was raised and where the 44th president started his political career in the Illinois State Senate.
With a federal review complete, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “Chicago is now officially the home of the presidential center for our country’s first Black president.”
Rendered site plans, a perspective, and a model show a promising scheme sensitively integrated into historic Jackson Park, an Olmsted and Vaux lakefront legacy that was the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Three stone-clad buildings connected below grade—the Museum, Forum, and Library—form a campus around a public plaza.
The Museum, which appears to be seven stories tall, is a distinctively canted mass with a cutout glass corner. It seems destined to be the center’s identifying landmark. By contrast, the Library and Forum are only one story each. With lushly planted roof terraces, they read mostly as landscape.
The Museum will contain exhibition galleries, public spaces, offices, and education and meeting rooms. The Forum will have more offices, an auditorium, a restaurant, and a public garden. The Obama Foundation is seeking community input for the programming of the Library. The total size of the Center will range between 200,000 and 225,000 square feet, but the site design imagined by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Site Design Group, and Living Habitats will provide a net increase in green space.
Obama clarified that the design is a work in progress, emphasizing, “I want this to be a conversation.” He seemed to be responding to criticism from local residents that the Foundation has not taken their concerns seriously. These include displacement of people who currently use the park for sports and barbecues, and the lack of a “benefits agreement” to codify the community’s share of jobs generated by the project. Obama offered reassurances on both issues. He also made a sly suggestion that, even though the Center’s location emerged from a formal bid process, the selection of Jackson Park—in the South Side community the Obamas call home—may have been a foregone conclusion.
With a long-running federal review complete, the first pre-construction utility relocation work for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park will start in April, with preliminary roadwork and site preparation to begin as early as August, the Obama Foundation and City Hall announced Wednesday.
Former President Barack Obama, in a video message released Wednesday, said: “We know that by working together, we can unlock the South Side’s fullest potential — and help set up our city, our country and our world for even better years still to come.”
The foundation has made extensive commitments to train and hire a diverse workforce to construct the Obama campus. Healey said the foundation will establish a system where the public will be able to track its diversity pledges.
The foundation estimated up to 5,000 Obama Center construction jobs will be created directly and indirectly. The foundation promised to award half the subcontracts to “diverse vendors.”
The federal review was mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act because Obama decided to locate his center in Jackson Park, a site of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The park was designed by famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
The Obama Center campus will be privately funded and maintained. It will take a projected four years to build. Tax dollars will pay for related roadway changes, with one estimate at $174 million.
The center will include a 235-foot stone-sheathed tower containing a museum; a dual-use building for events and athletic activities; a Chicago Public Library branch; a forum with offices; and outdoor space. The shade of the stone is still to be determined, Healey said.
There will also be a fruit and vegetable garden, a carryover from one of former first lady Michelle Obama’s signature projects — her White House vegetable garden, which gained notice across the globe.
There is no official Obama Presidential Library in the complex because Obama did not want to be bound by design restrictions, financial requirements and other rules imposed by the National Archives and Records Administration.
The unclassified artifacts, photos and records from Obama’s eight years in office were transferred to a nondescript building in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates.
NARA spokesman Laura Diachenko told the Sun-Times: “The classified textual records were moved to a National Archives facility in the Washington, D.C., area last year as part of a broader consolidation of classified NARA holdings.”