Obama discusses vision, designs for Presidential Center

By Eric Bradach

In his second public appearance since leaving the Oval Office, former President Barack Obama discussed the upcoming Obama Presidential Center.

The 44th president unveiled conceptual designs for the center—set to be built in Jackson Park by 2021–on May 3 along with Dina Griffin, an architect with Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, which designed the center. While at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Drive, where Obama and his wife Michelle were married, he primarily told residents what he wants the center to accomplish for the community. 

“We want this to be the world’s premier institution for training young people and leadership to make a difference in their communities, in their countries and in the world,” Obama said. “That’s our goal.”

Obama said he wants the center to be more like a campus, and that is why the Obama Foundation is calling it a center rather than a library. This is only the beginning of the process, and there will be continual conversations with the community about how the center can better the South Shore and Chicago as a whole, he added.

The center will reach out to high schools and community colleges to get students interested in the public policy, government, politics and activism. It will also work to bring together young people who have already shown leadership in issues, such as criminal justice and climate change, to give them the training and the skills that will allow them to succeed in their efforts, according to Obama. 

A 200,000–225,000 square foot building will divide into three structures: a museum, a forum and a library. At the heart of the center is a public plaza that will extend into the open landscape. The museum will anchor the northern end of the plaza while the library and forum roofs will be covered with plants to create new park land, according to a press release from the Obama Foundation on the same day. Concept art can be seen on the foundation’s website.

“We’re so excited to be working on this,” Griffin said. “It’s not just about building a building and moving on. This is about building a movement.” 

Obama said the center will also provide economic opportunity for the entire city. While the center will create 200–300 jobs, the construction phase will generate approximately 1,500 jobs and another 2,000 in the overall economic development of the area. There are also plans for a possible partnering with Chicago Public Libraries to create computer and digital training that go beyond what is taught in the classroom, he added. 

“If we do this well, not only will this end up being a world-recognized institution, where people from around the world come to teach, learn and work with each other, but it will also be a transformational project for this community,” Obama said. 

At the discussion, Obama recalled his time in Hyde Park and said his first Chicago apartment was at the Flamingo-on-the-Lake Apartments, just east of the University of Chicago, where he taught constitutional law. The East View Park Condominiums, just north of the Flamingo, is where he and Michelle Obama bought their first home, he added, to show his connection to the area. 

“The best things that have happened to me in my life happened in this community,” Obama said. “The closest friends that I have made, the start of my life in public service, the values that I learned here in Chicago and that we’ve now passed on to our children, I owe it all to this community.”

Obama’s comments about Chicago were well received by those in attendance. Many of whom showed appreciation for staying connected with his adoptive home.

“Obama never lost touch with Chicago, his home, and Chicago never lost touch with President Obama,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first White House chief of staff. “Chicago is where he will carry on his work of educating, mentoring and inspiring the next generation of leaders who will follow in his footsteps.”

 Also in the audience was Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th Ward) and state Rep. Juliana Stratton, D-Chicago.

The target completion date is four years away, and while the buildings, landscaping and parks will not be completed, the programs are slated to start this year. 

“We don’t want to wait for a building,” Obama said. “This isn’t just about buildings. This is about reaching out right now.” 

The former Illinois state senator also announced that he and his wife will personally donate $2 million to the center’s summer jobs programs, “so that right away young people right away can get to work.” 

“We want to continue to have input to make sure that we get this just right,” Obama said. “Ultimately, this is your center, not just mine.”