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Obama Presidential Center Finally On The Verge Of Construction

The proposed Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park

Plans to create an Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side were bogged down for years by lawsuits, debate over a community benefits agreement and tussles over its potential environmental impact on the historic Jackson Park. But trustees of the Obama Foundation seem confident they are almost ready to begin construction.

The foundation this week hired Lori Healey, president of Clayco’s Chicago business unit, to lead the effort. Before joining Clayco late last year, Healey led the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, the owner of McCormick Place and Navy Pier, was Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief of staff and served as principal of the John Buck Co.

“We are nearing the end of the four separate federal reviews that must be completed before the City, Park District or the Foundation can begin construction on-site or the adjacent roadways,” an Obama Foundation spokesperson told Bisnow in a written statement.

“The Foundation remains eager to deliver on the economic benefits our project will produce for South Side residents, something we recognize will be sorely needed in the months and years ahead,” the spokesperson added. “Additionally, the Foundation remains committed to bringing the Obama Presidential Center to Jackson Park and we will issue a revised construction timeline once we understand the potential short-and-long term effects of COVID-19.”

“I am a huge fan and advocate of the Obama Foundation’s work, and while I’m sad to see Lori leave Clayco, I’m tremendously supportive of her move and will do everything we can to make her successful there,” Clayco Executive Chairman Bob Clark said in a press release announcing the move.

David Reifman, former Department of Planning and Development commissioner for the city of Chicago, will take Healey’s place at Clayco effective Dec. 1, Clark added. Reifman will also keep his current role as a principal and partner at CRG, Clayco’s real estate development and investment firm.

Preservation groups had filed a federal lawsuit over the foundation’s plans, claiming the proposed four-building complex would mar Jackson Park, which Frederick Law Olmsted helped design. The lawsuit was later dismissed, and a federal appeals court rejected the plaintiffs’ appeal on Aug. 21.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot then helped tamp down other resistance from neighborhood groups concerned over escalating housing costs in the surrounding area. She agreed to reserve 30% of the units developed on nearby vacant lots for “very-low-income families.” In addition, city officials pledged to spend about $4.5M on a variety of home improvement programs for local residents, as well as promote homeownership and refinance deals that will keep rents affordable.

The final piece of the puzzle was the memorandum of agreement negotiated between federal agencies such as the Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service, along with a collection of other state and city departments, that will govern how the project proceeds. It was signed earlier this week.