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Obama presidential center to break ground in Chicago amid years of pushback – USA TODAY

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CHICAGO — The Obama Presidential Center was expected to break ground Tuesday amid years of pushback by park preservationists and community groups concerned that residents will be displaced.

“Michelle and I could not be more excited to break ground on the Obama Presidential Center in the community that we love,” Former President Barack Obama said in a video message posted to Twitter on Friday. “With your help, we can make this center a catalyst for economic opportunity, a new world-class destination on the South Side, and a platform for young people to drive change.”

He and former first lady Michelle Obama were expected to be in Chicago for the ceremony at 1:15 p.m. CT. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot were also expected to attend.

The $500 million center, designed by architects Todd Williams and Billie Tsien, will be in  Jackson Park on the city’s South Side and consist of a museum, forum, public library, plaza, playground and pedestrian and bicycle paths.

The site is near where Barack and Michelle Obama first met, settled down and had their daughters. It’s close to the University of Chicago Law School, where Barack Obama taught constitutional law. It’s also also a few miles from where Michelle Obama grew up and several miles from where Barack Obama worked as a community organizer. He represented the area in the Illinois Senate from 1997 until 2004.

“Barack and I always knew we’d come back here. It’s where I grew up, surrounded by a community that made me who I am,” Michelle Obama said in the video message.

The Obama Foundation said it hopes the center brings 700,000 people to the South Side every year.

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The foundation announced the location of the center in 2016, but the project was delayed by a lengthy federal review process required because Jackson Park is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The park was designed by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1871 and remodeled for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

The National Park Service and Federal Highway Administration concluded their four-year review in February.

Several local groups, including park preservationists and a coalition of community organizations, have raised concerns about the project for years. Park preservationists have warned about the effects on the historic parkland and have proposed an alternative location for the center, in nearby Washington Park.

Since 2018, the nonprofit Protect Our Parks has launched a series of lawsuits to try to prevent construction on the historic parkland. Last month, the group asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant an application for an immediate injunction of the project pending an appeal.

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Meanwhile, a collection of community organizations under the banner of the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition has also voiced concern that longtime residents surrounding the site are at risk of being priced out of their neighborhoods.

Dixon Romeo, a member of the coalition, lives four blocks from the site in the South Shore neighborhood where Michelle Obama grew up. Romeo said he became involved with the coalition in 2017 and knocks on doors every weekend to speak with residents about the center.

“Folks overwhelming are afraid of displacement. They know the neighborhood is going to change, but they want to make sure they can stay and see it,” Romeo said.

Area residents are predominantly renters, according to the 2017 report. Nearly half of renters have annual incomes less than $20,000, eviction rates are some of the highest in the city, and rent is rising in newly renovated and new construction units, which the majority of current renters cannot afford, according to the report.

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The coalition launched a years-long campaign demanding a community benefits agreement to protect residents from displacement, and the city and Obama Foundation made a series of promises to address the coalition’s concerns.

Last year, the city adopted an ordinance for the Woodlawn neighborhood – the neighborhood closest to where the center will be located – that mandated affordability requirements on all rental and for-sale housing developed on city-owned residential land. It also appropriated about $4.5 million to help rehabilitate existing affordable housing.

The ordinance also created a “Right of First Refusal Pilot Program” in the neighborhood that would require an owner of a building with 10 or more units to give tenants an exclusive opportunity to make an offer on the property prior to its sale.

However, several other neighborhoods in the area – such as Grand Crossing, South Shore and Hyde Park – have not received similar provisions. 

“This should be a priority. Without that, it’s the start of a ticking clock of how much longer folks get to stay,” Romeo said.

For its part, the foundation committed to awarding 50% of the subcontracting packages for the center to businesses owned by minorities, women or veterans, with 35% of workers living on the South and West Sides. In March, the foundation created a “We Can Build It Consortium” to get more local residents involved in the building trades and committed $850,000 to train 400 apprentices from the South and West Sides.

Romeo said he’s concerned that, even for the residents who get the new jobs, the wages won’t offset rising rent.

“I think the center is something that, in another universe, I could be excited about. But the reality is, whatever good it does, whatever good it brings, because the city won’t take action and put protections in place, those things will be overshadowed by what I see every day, which is pain.”

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