CHICAGO (CN) — Former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama joined Illinois’ governor and the mayor of Chicago Tuesday in Jackson Park for the groundbreaking ceremony at the site of the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center.
“This day has been a long time coming,” said the 44th president of the United States.
The center, whose patrons billed it as both a presidential library and a “university for activism,” will feature walking and bike paths, a library, private event spaces and a 235-foot-tall tower that serves as a museum dedicated to the Obama presidency. In total, it will occupy about between 200,000 and 225,000 square feet.
The Jackson Park site was selected due to its proximity both to the South Side neighborhoods where Barack Obama began his political career and Michelle Obama grew up, and to the city’s famous Museum of Science and Industry. The architectural firm that designed the center, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, employs the first female architects to take part in designing a presidential center.
The governor, the mayor and the former first couple all offered short speeches to mark the occasion and explain why they thought the center would help revitalize the underserved, majority-Black communities surrounding Jackson Park. Economic investment and community engagement were themes at the top of all four speakers’ lists.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the center would represent a “transformative investment” for the South Side, promising that it would bring “good jobs prioritized for nearby residents.”
The former president said the center would “help spark economic growth in this community by bringing in … visitors who will eat, shop, explore and spend money, strengthening the South Side and making it an even more attractive place for businesses to grow and hire.”
He added that he hopes the Center will become “the world’s premiere institution for developing civic leaders across fields, across disciplines and … across the political spectrum.”
Adding to these speeches, several big names in Democratic politics offered their own accolades to the Obamas to mark the occasion, including President Joe Biden.
“It’s not just breaking ground on a new building, it’s breaking ground on the very idea of America as a place of possibility,” Biden said in a pre-recorded video.
Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker went so far as to liken Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln.
“We are proudly now known as the Land of Lincoln and Obama,” he said at the ceremony.
But out of view of the cameras, local activists were far more skeptical of the Obama Center’s capacity to improve life for South Side residents. A group called Protect Our Parks actively opposes its construction in Jackson Park. The group took to Twitter while the groundbreaking ceremony was underway, explaining how they believed the reality of the Center’s construction undermined its sponsors’ lofty rhetoric.