Obama Breaks Ground on Presidential Center in Chicago After Lengthy Discord

The project has been bogged down by legal challenges and a federal review. Barack Obama’s presidential papers won’t actually be housed there — they’ll be digitized, another point of contention.

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More than four years after leaving office, Barack Obama broke ground on Tuesday on his presidential center on the South Side of Chicago, a legacy project that has been bogged down by a lengthy discord over its use of a public park and its potential impact on a historically neglected part of the city.

In an hourlong ceremony that was scaled down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Obama and Michelle Obama, the former first lady, scooped up dirt with commemorative shovels at the 19-acre site in Jackson Park, near the shores of Lake Michigan.

Joining the Obamas for the groundbreaking, which was streamed online, were Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois and Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago.

“This day has been a long time coming,” Mr. Obama said. “The pandemic had other plans, so we’re keeping this small for now.”

Mr. Obama, 60, a Democrat who left office in January 2017, said that the presidential center would become a catalyst for job growth and economic development in the place where he came of age as a politician, husband and father. The project, he said, would also turn Chicago’s South Side into a destination not just for people to learn about his presidency but also for future leaders.

“Chicago is where I found the purpose that I had been seeking,” said Mr. Obama, who in 2008 became the first Black person elected to the U.S. presidency.

In a departure from similar projects recognizing former presidents, the center won’t actually be a presidential library. It won’t house Mr. Obama’s presidential papers, which will be digitized — a decision that has been a sore point for some presidential observers. Mr. Obama envisioned that the center would host concerts, cultural events, lectures, trainings and summits.

“We want this center to be more than a static museum or a source of archival research,” Mr. Obama said. “It won’t just be a collection of campaign memorabilia or Michelle’s ball gowns, although I know everybody will come see those. It won’t just be an exercise in nostalgia or looking backwards. We want to look forward.”

Construction of the presidential center, whose estimated price tag has soared from initial projections of $500 million to $830 million, is expected to take four years.

A 235-foot “museum tower” will be the focal point of the center. Words taken from Mr. Obama’s 2015 speech marking the 50th anniversary of the civil rights demonstrations in Selma, Ala., will wrap around the tower’s exterior to create a sunscreen. The center will include a Chicago Public Library branch, a great lawn, a children’s play area, a fruit and vegetable garden, and a teaching kitchen.

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A rendering of the planned Obama Presidential Center’s main tower.Credit…Obama Foundation

President Biden, who served as Mr. Obama’s vice president for eight years, did not attend the ceremony but offered his support in a prerecorded message.

“It’s not just breaking ground on a new building,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s breaking ground on the very idea of America as a place of possibilities.”

The selection of Chicago by the Obamas for the presidential center reaffirmed the city’s seminal role in their political and personal lives.

Mr. Obama taught law at the University of Chicago for 12 years before he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. It was at a Chicago law firm that he met his wife in 1989: She had been assigned to serve as his mentor. And the city is where the future first couple started their family.

Mrs. Obama, 57, said that even though she had dined with heads of state, kings and queens, in addition to having shaken hands with two popes, she had not forgotten her roots.

“One of my greatest honors is being a proud Chicagoan, a daughter of the South Side,” Mrs. Obama said. “I still lead with that descriptor. I wear it boldly and proudly like a crown.”

But for all of the good will that the Obamas had accumulated in Chicago, which is where Mr. Obama celebrated his victory in the 2008 presidential election in front of an estimated 240,000 people in Grant Park, they could not avert protracted delays over the presidential center’s opening.

“It took many twists and turns,” Ms. Lightfoot said of the project.

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The groundbreaking for the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago on Tuesday.Credit…Mustafa Hussain for The New York Times

The choice of Jackson Park rankled both preservation groups and some residents, who questioned whether the project would displace Black residents in the neighborhood as gentrification took hold.

An advocacy group unsuccessfully sued over the use of the park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Because of the designation, the project was the subject of a four-year review by the federal government that did not get resolved until earlier this year.

In August, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request by the project’s opponents to stop the construction from going forward, The Chicago Tribune reported. Work began that same month, more than five years after the Obamas chose the center’s location.

The wait for Mr. Obama to open his presidential center will wind up being considerably longer than those experienced by his predecessors.

Former President George W. Bush dedicated his presidential library in Dallas in April 2013, a little more than four years after leaving office, while former President Bill Clinton opened his presidential library and museum in Little Rock, Ark., in November 2004, less than four years after his presidency ended.

Mr. Pritzker, the Illinois governor, said that having the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago was a source of great pride.

“Which means,” he said, “we are proudly now known as the land of Lincoln and Obama.”

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