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Obama Breaks Ground on Presidential Center After Onslaught of Criticism, Gentrification Accusations, Lawsuits

Despite five years of legal opposition, a federal review and gentrification claims, former President Barrack Obama broke ground on an eponymous $500 million multi-use campus on the South Side of Chicago this week.

The 19-acre Obama Presidential Center will house a museum, public library, playground, recording studio and pedestrian and bike paths, among other things, in honor of the beloved Chicagoan and the nation’s first Black president.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (L) joins former President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for the ceremonial groundbreaking of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on September 28, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. Construction of the center was delayed by a long legal battle undertaken by residents who objected to the center being built in a city park. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The Obama Foundation, which oversees the project, hopes it will bring 700,000 people to the area where Obama first started his political career. The foundation estimates that it could generate about $3.1 billion in financial benefits, create 2,500 permanent jobs and change the economic outlook for an adjacent mostly Black neighborhood.

Activists, however, have sued to block the center’s construction over concerns it would harm a park where it would be built. Others feared it would price longtime residents out of their homes.

During a “Good Morning America” interview a day before Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony, Obama said he was sure the center, which would occupy a small portion of the 540-acre Jackson Park, would benefit the area.

“I am absolutely confident that when this thing is done, people are gonna say, not only will the park have been enhanced, but the people who use it are gonna get a different kind of experience,” Obama told ABC anchor Robin Roberts.

“The young person who’s growin’ up across the street or down the block or, a few miles away, now suddenly have a place where concerts and speeches and debates and forums are taking place that they can access.”

A group of grassroots activists, which includes a member of the NAACP, called Protect Our Parks, fought the Obama Foundation’s plans in federal court in April.

They claimed the project would disrupt Jackson Park’s natural design, destroy trees and cause traffic pile-ups in residential areas. A federal judge struck down the case in August. The judge said the group did not meet the requirements to block the center’s construction, but Protect Our Parks is now appealing that decision.

The activists have filed complaints to stall the project since 2018, Politico reported, when the foundation was in the process of obtaining the land.

After that suit was dismissed in 2019, Protect Our Parks appealed, but the judge in that case also said they lacked standing because they couldn’t show personal harm.

A spokeswoman for the Obama Foundation told reporters most of the 350 trees that are set to be removed from the site are “dead, diseased or in poor overall health.”

The foundation said it would plant more trees than are currently on the site and increase green space. After a four-year review, the federal government also concluded the center had “no significant impact” on the park. Critics still argued the foundation did not search for other sites to build the center.

Supporters of the project say the members of Protect Our Parks, who, according to Politico, are mostly white, are trying to block the center because it honors America’s first Black president.

The center is near the law school where Obama taught, only a few miles from where he worked as a community organizer, and where he met his wife, former first lady Michelle Obama. President Obama also represented the area in the Illinois Senate for seven years.

Debate over the project has also uprooted some deep racial issues. The park is located in a prominently Black neighborhood, Woodlawn, and borders the mostly white Hyde Park and another Black neighborhood, South Shore. Supporters of the project accused critics of fearing the center would dissolve the existing racial divide.

Chicago Council Member Jeanette Taylor, who represents Woodlawn, expressed concerns that the proposed campus could lead to increased property values, forcing low-income renters to move. She told Politico her family was displaced when a public library was built about two decades ago.

A group of community organizations formed a coalition in 2016 that successfully pushed for a community benefits package that secured affordable housing for residents.

Richton Park, Illinois, community and economic development director Pete Saunders said Woodland is not at risk for being gentrified.

Saunders said “white flight” is too prevalent in Chicago, and because white residents are much wealthier, developers usually “follow the money.”

Construction on the center has started and is expected to take between four to five years to complete.

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