Rendering of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park Credit: Courtesy Obama Foundation

It was hot on the August day in 2016 when Mayor Rahm Emanuel presented the Obama Foundation with nearly 20 acres of Jackson Park as the site for the Obama Presidential Center.

On the concrete terrace on the south side of the Museum of Science and Industry, where journalists and officials gathered for the announcement, it was blistering—too hot to process much beyond the need to find some shade.  

Emanuel might have handed over a 99-year, $10 lease for 50 acres without getting a rise out of that sweltering captive audience.

If any of them were thinking about the battle over a similar gift to George Lucas, resolved barely two months earlier, when he gave up and took his museum to California, I didn’t hear them mention it.

Besides, the difference was as clear as the panorama of lagoon and woods stretching before us: Lucas is a moviemaker with no Chicago roots; Obama is the nation’s first Black president, a hometown hero of unprecedented status, nurtured and launched on this very ground.    

When Foundation chairman Martin Nesbitt stepped to the microphone that day, he said the center would open in 2021.

That turned out to be a bit optimistic. Given government regulations, community demands, and legal challenges, construction on the Jackson Park land has yet to begin. But this month, in the wake of an appeals court decision favorable to the city and the recent completion of federal reviews, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that the Obama Presidential Center, including a 235-foot tower and major taxpayer-supported infrastructure, would finally be getting underway.

“Chicago is now officially the home of the presidential center for our country’s first Black president,” Lightfoot said. The new target date for opening is 2025.

In this frigid, masked, pandemic February, that should be welcome news. Every Chicagoan I’ve talked with says they want the OPC here and thinks it should be on the south side. But some of those to whom it occurred—even before that sweaty day in 2016—that the presidential complex shouldn’t be planted on parkland, haven’t changed their opinion. A half-billion dollar project planned for a future when people will once again gather? Sure, but they’re still talking about an alternate site.      

Preservation Chicago, for example, which has had Jackson Park on its annual list of the city’s seven “Most Endangered” places for the last four years, is now advocating, not only for the relocation of the OPC out of the park, but for the entire lakefront park system to become a protected National Park or Monument, like the Indiana Dunes or the Pullman Historic District.

And Friends of the Parks, which led the legal battle against the Lucas Museum, is still saying (as it did in a recent statement about a proposed new school building in Riis Park), “We wish the Obama Center had been sited on vacant land across the street from Washington Park.”  

FOTP isn’t the organization that’s taken it to court, however.

That would be Protect Our Parks, a quixotic little ad hoc group that says it isn’t caving now. POP president Herbert Caplan claims the federally mandated reviews were not adequately conducted. (A charge also made by Jackson Park Watch.) He’s fired off a letter about that to President Biden’s newly installed secretaries of transportation and the interior, asking them to “stop this project now,” and “properly review all feasible and prudent alternatives.”

What kind of reception is this likely to get from the administration of Obama’s former vice president? “It’s a long shot,” Caplan admits, “but the Biden administration has declared that they’re all in favor of environmental protection.”  

POP’s also attempting to take its legal case, led by Hoover Institution fellow (Wait—there couldn’t be anything political about this, right?) and UChicago law professor emeritus Richard Epstein, to the Supreme Court.

I wondered how that would work, since the appellate court judge behind the decision to boot their case from federal court last August was Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s latest appointment to the Supremes. Barrett would not be able to participate, Caplan told me last weekend. And, if that fails, POP’s prepared to file an array of new lawsuits.  

But this was the big news: POP was getting ready to unveil its own architectural plan for the Obama Center on a site abutting Washington Park. Created by architect and preservationist Grahm Balkany, this detailed plan would better serve both the public interest and Obama’s legacy, Caplan said. “He could start building immediately; the lawsuits would be moot. All he’d have to do is turn it over to his construction company.”

Once Obama sees it, Caplan said, “We think he might suddenly decide, ‘Yeah, that’s a better plan.'”  v