WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama officially break ground on their Obama Presidential Center on Tuesday while construction in historic Jackson Park in Chicago kicked off in August.
Groundbreaking celebrations for the complex, which will not include the official Obama Presidential library, will start on Monday with a gathering of Obama alumni and run through Tuesday with events to be virtual and in-person due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot will join Obama for the small groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday.
Obama, whose political career was launched on the South Side, and Michelle, who grew up on the South Side, intend for their center to spark a South Side economic renewal. The construction has started even as federal litigation opposing locating the project in Jackson Park is still pending.
In a video where the Obama’s are sitting side by side, Michelle Obama said, “This project has reminded us why the South Side and the people who live here are so special. And it’s reaffirmed what Barack and I always believed that the future here is as bright as it is, anywhere.”
On Monday evening before the event, Obama will host a fireside chat via Zoom with David Plouffe, who managed his first campaign and Obama Foundation chief Valerie Jarrett, a longtime confidant of the Obamas who served in his White House for the entire eight years of his presidency. The chat is for alumni from the two Obama presidential campaigns — both headquartered in Chicago — and administration.
The Obama Center, on 19.3 acres in Jackson Park, will take about four years to build. The latest price tag is $830 million. The most striking structure will be a chunky 235-foot-high museum tower. The complex also includes an athletic and event center, a forum with a restaurant, an auditorium, recording studios, garage and a Chicago Public Library branch.
In July 2016, then-President Barack Obama selected Jackson Park, the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, for his center. Nearby Washington Park was also in the running and would likely have spawned less opposition if the center was located there.
Obama’s decision to locate his presidential complex in a landmarked park automatically triggered a federal review. Foundation planners did not factor in that a federal review typically takes years and, at one point, predicted groundbreaking would be in 2018. The review started in 2017 and concluded last spring.
The complex will not house the official Obama Presidential Library run by the National Archives and Records Administration. Artifacts, some records and NARA staffers are located in a nondescript northwest suburban Hoffman Estates building.
In 2017, Obama jettisoned the official presidential library from the project to be free of NARA’s expensive design, endowment and security mandates, saving himself the need to fundraise millions more. If the Obama Center included the NARA-operated Obama Library, the endowment under NARA rules would be 60% of the library cost.