Former president Barack Obama introduced the design plans for the Obama Presidential Center at a packed, invitation-only meeting in the auditorium of the South Shore Cultural Center this afternoon. The plans include the potentially controversial closing of Cornell Drive, which currently runs through Jackson Park, where the center will be located.
The much-anticipated design turned out to be not one but three buildings totaling about 200,000 square feet: a towering museum and two one-story structures housing a “forum” and the library. I’d wondered whether the project, led by the New York-based architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, would look more like the sore thumb of their Logan Center at the University of Chicago, or like their hunkered-down Barnes Museum in Philadephia. Turns out it’s both: a blatant tower with a spreading midsection, like a pair of trapezoids with one set atop the other, and the very discreet single-story buildings nestled below sloping green roofs and parkland.
Williams and Tsien didn’t make it for this presentation; the architectural team was represented by its Chicago link, Dina Griffin.
Obama said it will take four years to complete construction, though programming will begin this year, including efforts to reach local teenagers. He announced that he and Michelle will “personally donate $2 million to a summer jobs program.”
The former president got a warm welcome from the hometown crowd, and said he owes “everything to this community.”
“Although we had a formal bidding process about where the center would be, the fact of the matter is, it had to be here, on the south side,” Obama said. He wants the center to be a well-used hub and an “institution for training young people to be leaders.” He expects it to be “transformational for this community” and to restore the park to the vibrant space it was meant to be—more like Millennium Park or Lincoln Park, with playsets, a sliding hill, and concert space. He also mentioned a library branch on the center’s campus as a possibility, along with food trucks and paddle boats in the park.
As for the road closure, Obama said traffic studies show that at the worst, commutes will only be slower by one to three minutes. “You can’t have kids playing on the road,” he said. He added that the design we’re seeing today is “our basic concept,” and there will be opportunity for community input.
A few previously submitted questions were answered during a brief Q&A after the presentation. In response to a query about traffic and parking, Obama said they’re exploring underground garage options.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel noted in introductory remarks that the South Shore Center was the site of both the Obama’s wedding reception and his own.