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Barack Obama dismisses claims $500m 'Presidential Center' will destroy Chicago park

Barack Obama has dismissed criticism of his planned presidential center after activists said the massive public works project would destroy a historic park and price black residents out of the area.

The nation's first black president told ABC News on Monday that he is 'absolutely confident' the Obama Presidential Center in the old Jackson Park section of the city's South Side will benefit the community. 

'The truth is, any time you do a big project, unless you're in the middle of a field somewhere, you know, and it's on private property, there's always going to be some people who say, "Well, but we don't want change. We're worried about it. We don't know how it's going to turn out'," Obama told Good Morning America.

The 44th President of the United States has generated controversy in recent weeks after hosting a 60th birthday party at his massive home on Martha's Vineyard at the height of the COVID Delta surge.

Obama's presidential center will move another step closer to its brick-and-mortar future Tuesday when ground is broken after years of reviews, other delays and continued local opposition.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, will join Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot in Chicago on Tuesday for a groundbreaking ceremony for the Obama Presidential Center.

'Michelle and I could not be more excited to break ground on the Obama Presidential Center in the community that we love,' the former president says, seated beside his wife, in a video announcement shared first with The Associated Press.

The former president in 2016 chose a site in Jackson Park, a historic lakefront landmark, to build his presidential library, near where he began his political career, met and married his wife and lived with their family.

The former first lady grew up on Chicago’s South Side.

Former President Barack Obama says his new presidential center slated to be built in the Jackson Park section of Chicago's South Side will benefit the community

But the planning process hit numerous snags due to a legal battle with park preservationists and protests from neighborhood activists who feared the planned $500million center would displace black residents.

Obama told Good Morning America: 'The overwhelming majority of the community has been not just OK with it, but are hugely enthusiastic about it.'

The new center will include a library, museum, gardens, and a children's playground.

Obama and supporters of the center say it will attract investment and jobs to the community, but opponents fear that it will lead to increased gentrification that will eventually displace low-income residents of color.

Chicago’s City Council has since approved neighborhood protections, and a four-year federal review process that was needed because of its location in Jackson Park - which is on the National Register of Historic Places - was recently completed.

It determined that the presidential center posed 'no significant impact to the human environment.' 

But Protect Our Parks, a nonprofit park preservationist organization, filed a lawsuit in April challenging the legality of the federal review.

The group argued that the planned center 'will tear up this Frederick Law Olmsted masterpiece.' It claimed that the plans call for removing trees, tearing down the Women's Garden, and a closure of roadways.

Last month, the Supreme Court rejected an emergency appeal filed by the group seeking to stop construction.

Protect Our Parks released a statement on Monday saying that 'the homecoming of the former President and the First Lady should be a moment of pride for Chicagoans.

'On this visit, though, we hope they will mourn the devastation of the initial clear-cutting of the mature trees and the destruction of the Women's Garden in Jackson Park, in addition to the long-term environmental and public health dangers that will ensue.'

'Unfortunately, hosting a series of virtual groundbreakings will not change the facts of the case or the long-term adverse effects on the community,' the statement said. 

'On the contrary, it would take one decision by Mr. and Mrs. Obama to relocate the OPC site to the adjacent area close to Washington Park.' 

Officials announced in February that construction would begin this year, starting with the relocation of utility lines followed by actual construction.

'This project has reminded us why the South Side and the people who live here are so special,' the former first lady said in the video, adding that the effort has reaffirmed for her and her husband that the future on the South Side of Chicago 'is as bright as it is anywhere.'

The new center, whose construction will be estimated at $500million, will include a library, museum, gardens, and a children's playground. The above image is an artist rendering of the Obama Presidential Center. It was released in May 2017

Environmental and community activists have been vocal in their criticism of plans to build Obama's presidential center in Jackson Park (above), a historic landmark

Obama has described the center as a hub for youth programming and public gatherings that will jumpstart the economy on the city’s South Side, parts of which are impoverished, by bringing attention, jobs and visitors. 

Foundation officials estimate the center will help create about 5,000 jobs, both during and after construction.

Obama was blasted for setting a bad example and being out of touch last month over his lavish 60th birthday bash.

 Hundreds of guests, including Hollywood stars, attended the partyon August 7, flying in from around the country and congregating under tents where partiers danced, ate and drank the night away on his estate in Edgartown. 

The lavish event was held at a time when Martha's Vineyard was already experiencing a new surge in cases.

Initially, Obama prepared to welcome 500 guests to his mansion. But he then announced his party would be 'scaled back' amid criticism as the Delta coronavirus variant spread across the country.

But despite the ex-president's insistence that he had disinvited everyone but his family and close friends, 300 to 400 people showed up to his party, everyone from Jay Z and Beyonce to Chrissy Teigen and John Legend.

Many of the guests flew in by private jet and stayed in Edgartown, the center of the island's COVID resurgence.

During the festivities, many guests were seen without masks or other face coverings.

A 'coronavirus coordinator' was hired to make sure the party was compliant with the most recent CDC guidance.

Attendees were required to take tests and submit their results to gain entry to the compound. 

Obama has generated controversy in recent weeks after hosting a 60th birthday party at his massive home on Martha's Vineyard. The former president and first lady, Michelle Obama, are seen above with guests from the August 7 bash 

Obama is pictured enjoying brunch beneath a marquee on August 8 following his huge birthday party the night before

Obama has dismissed suggestions that the presidential center will cause harm to the community. He is seen above on May 3, 2017 next to a map of the planned presidential center in Chicago

'Michelle and I could not be more excited to break ground on the Obama Presidential Center in the community that we love,' the former president says, seated beside his wife

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