by Todd Feurer, CBS Chicago web producerBy CBS 2 Chicago Staff

CHICAGO (CBS) — Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. JB Pritzker on Wednesday announced $200 million in utility, infrastructure, and park improvements in Jackson Park that will help pave the way for groundbreaking of the $500 million Obama Presidential Center later this year.

The pre-construction work that will now get underway in and around Jackson Park will include relocating utility lines, closing and reconfiguring roads in and around the park, improving park trails, building a new track and field facility, and adding a new dog park and baseball diamonds.

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“This is an investment that South Side residents have been asking for for far too long,” Lightfoot said of the investment in the Woodlawn neighborhood and other communities surrounding Jackson Park. “The Obama Presidential Center and the capital investments we are making alongside it are the true embodiment of what it means to create inclusive economic growth. All too often, Black and Brown residents like the ones who call our South Side home have historically been left behind and left out of our city’s economic recovery efforts. No more.”

(Credit: CBS)

While no date has been set to break ground on the Obama Presidential Center itself, Lightfoot said she expects that will happen sometime this fall. Obama Foundation chairman Marty Nesbitt said former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama will attend the groundbreaking, and “will spend time here at the center.”

The center will include a 235-foot stone tower housing the site’s museum; a Chicago Public Library branch; a multipurpose space on top of the museum, a program, activity, and athletic center for community programs and events; a Great Lawn for social gatherings, barbecues, a nature center; and new walking and biking trails; a children’s play area; and a fruit and vegetable garden and teaching kitchen.

The center will not include a formal presidential library operated by the National Archives and Records Administration. Rather, Obama’s collection of presidential documents and artifacts will be stored in existing NARA facilities, and non-classified documents will be available online.

A federal review of the project was required because Obama decided to build the center in Jackson Park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That review by the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration determined the center and planned roadway changes in Jackson Park “would not have a significant impact on the environment,” according to the mayor’s office.

An aerial view of the south side of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, after the latest changes to the design added more windows and other tweaks to the tower. (Credit: Obama Foundation)

Plans approved by the Chicago City Council include closing several roads in Jackson Park and replacing them with new green space, and widening or reconfiguring other streets in the neighborhood.

City officials said the traffic plan will create five acres of new parkland by converting several roads in Jackson Park into green space:

  • Cornell Drive between North Midway Plaisance and Hayes Drive;
  • South Midway Plaisance between Stony Island Avenue and Cornell Drive;
  • Marquette Drive between Stony Island Avenue and Richards Drive;
  • Northbound Cornell Drive from 68th Street to where Cornell Drive becomes two-way

Other nearby roadways will be redesigned to handle increased traffic and improve access in and around Jackson Park:

  • Adding a third southbound lane on Lake Shore Drive from 57th Street to Hayes Drive;
  • Improving capacity and safety on Hayes Drive between Lake Shore Drive and Cornell Drive;
  • Adding a lane in each direction on Stony Island from 59th Street to 65th Street, while maintaining on-street parking and loading lanes;
  • Adding planted medians, left turn lanes at key intersections, and pedestrian refuge islands to enhance safety on Stony Island;
  • Reconfiguring the intersection of Stony Island, Midway Plaisance and 59th and 60th Streets to improve capacity and pedestrian and traffic safety;
  • Building new pedestrian underpasses in Jackson Park under Hayes Drive west of Lake Shore Drive and two under the new Hayes Drive and Cornell Drive intersection;
  • Adding new pathways within Jackson Park to provide key connections for people biking or walking through the park;
  • Upgrading or installing seven traffic signals in the area, allowing synchronization of traffic and bus traffic signal priority technology.

The $174 million roadway work will be funded by the state.

Nesbitt estimated the Obama Presidential Center would generate $3.1 billion of economic impact, and bring 700,000 visitors per year to the South Side.

“We are restoring the history of this park, and realizing Olmstead’s vision of a park for the people,” he said.

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A view of the north side of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, after the latest changes to the design added more windows and other tweaks to the tower. (Credit: Obama Foundation)

Construction of the Obama Presidential Center is expected to take four years to complete, and the Obama Foundation has estimated the center will cost approximately $500 million. Once it is built, the city would own the campus, but the center would pay to maintain it. The Obama Presidential Center will be privately funded, and the foundation will pay the city $10 to lease the land for 99 years.

The federal review of the center was not the only hurdle it faced. In 2018, the nonprofit Protect Our Parks sued to block construction, claiming the city did not have the authority to transfer public land to a private entity. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit in 2019, and last year a federal appeals court upheld that ruling.

The project has raised concerns among residents in Woodlawn and neighboring communities about whether they will be forced out of their homes due to gentrification resulting from the project.

Lightfoot said an ordinance aimed at protecting affordable housing in Woodlawn will include a $10 million revolving loan fund to help existing property owners make home improvements. The mayor also announced a $100 million commitment to overhaul the “western gateway” to the center at 63rd and Cottage Grove, including a complete overhaul of the 63rd Street Green Line station, and a new federally qualified healthcare center.

The Obama Foundation also has vowed that 35% of the construction workers on the project will be residents of the South and West Sides.

In September, the City Council approved an ordinance designed to protect affordable housing in Woodlawn after the center is built, including a requirement that developers build more affordable housing units in future residential construction projects in the area.

The measure requires 30% of the units in any residential development on 52 vacant lots owned by the city to be set aside for people earning between 30% and 50% of the area’s median income.

Those 52 parcels represent a quarter of the 208 vacant lots the city owns in Woodlawn.

For the remaining city-owned lots, whenever the city sells the land, developers building residential projects with 15 or more units would have to set aside at least 20% of the units for households with incomes of no more than 80% of the area’s median income; with at least 5% set aside for households with an income of no more than 50% of the area’s median income, and another 5% set aside for households with an income of no more than 30% of the area’s median income. For projects with 6 to 14 units, developers would have to set aside at least 10% of the units for households with incomes of no more than 80% of the area’s median income.

The ordinance also would provide $1.5 million to the Preservation of Existing Affordable Rentals program, which offers financial assistance to landlords for the purchase or refinancing of apartment buildings in exchange for a commitment to keep units affordable for 30 years. At least 10% of units would have to be affordable to tenants who earn no more than 30% of the area’s median income, and another 10% of units would have to be affordable to renters who earn no more than 50% of the area’s median income.

In addition, Woodlawn residents who have owned their home for five years or more, and earn no more than 120% of the area’s median income could apply for $20,000 grants to repair their homes. The ordinance would provide $1 million for that Woodlawn Long-term Homeowner Home Improvement Grant program.

The measure also would provide $500,000 for the Renew Woodlawn program to help low- and moderate-income residents purchase homes. Another $1.5 million would go to the Woodlawn Loan Fund, to help finance the purchase and renovation of vacant units to create more affordable housing.

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Tenants in existing apartment buildings in Woodlawn also would be given the chance to buy their building before their landlord puts it up for sale. Owners of buildings with 10 or more units would have to notify tenants 30 days before putting their property up for sale, and allow tenants 90 days to make an offer to purchase the building.

CBS 2 Chicago Staff