Field of dreams: Chicago scrambles to rescue troubled Obama Library bids

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Fields of concrete and weeds surround the Garfield Green Line stop in the Washington Park neighborhood on the city’s South Side. Much of the land, either owned by the city of Chicago or University of Chicago, is part of one of the proposals in the university’s bid to host the Obama Presidential Library. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

Fields of concrete and weeds surround the Garfield Green Line stop in the Washington Park neighborhood on the city’s South Side. Much of the land, either owned by the city of Chicago or University of Chicago, is part of one of the proposals in the university’s bid to host the Obama Presidential Library. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

City scrambles to rescue troubled Obama Library bids that could bring hope and change to blighted Chicago neighborhoods

The city’s efforts to secure the Obama Presidential Library have accelerated over the last couple of weeks, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel calling for community hearings ahead of the possible acquisition of parkland in either Washington or Jackson parks for the president’s legacy institution.

The latest push comes after members of The Barack Obama Foundation leaked that Chicago’s two bids, one from the University of  Illinois at Chicago on the city’s West Side and the other from the University of Chicago on the South Side, were in jeopardy. The foundation was concerned by the turnover of leadership at UIC, considered a longshot, while they were concerned by U of C.’s lack of ownership of the land it proposed for the library.

While UIC put the leadership issue to rest by issuing a strong statement from the current and future leadership teams, U of C., once considered the frontrunner for the library, now finds itself in a real dilemma as it has no way of acquiring the land on its own.

The university, where Obama taught constitutional law, kept the many key details of their bid secret until a few weeks ago, when it finally came out that parkland would be a part of any U of C. library bid.

“You might say that in the case of the University of Chicago people who were responsible for this, they didn’t realize the significance of the land acquisition matter,” said Larry Bennett, a professor of public policy at DePaul. “And I would say that’s pretty stupid if you didn’t realize that.”

“The other possibility is that the University of Chicago has been so able to manipulate local land use in the area around its campus for so many years that that was kind of an afterthought for them,” he said. “They assumed that, well, if it looks like we’re pretty close to being picked, we can assemble this land and we’ll just do it.”

The proposed Obama library site backs up to the Garfield Green Line stop. Public transit has been a key component of all the library bids. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

The proposed Obama library site backs up to the Garfield Green Line stop. Public transit has been a key component of all the library bids. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

At issue is either 22 acres in Washington Park or 21 acres in Jackson Park. Emanuel threw out a third site, near the South Shore Cultural Center along the lake, as it would have most likely invited a lawsuit and significant controversy. The mayor has taken control of the process and scheduled community meetings in both communities to discuss the possible acquisition of park land by the city.

The meetings made it apparent that the community wants the library.

To go along with that, last week, more than 40 politicians and community leaders on the South Side urged the mayor to do whatever it takes to secure the library. Not all are so eager, however. Friends of the Park, an organization that advocates for the city’s parks, sent a letter to the president and first lady urging them not to choose a site that would take away parkland.

“In support of Chicago’s two university bids, we hope you will select Chicago as the home of the Obama Presidential Library, but that you reject the concept of a campus setting in an existing and instead use placement of your library as the model for good urban community development without eroding parkland,” the organization wrote in its letter.

The organization supports either using non-parkland that the university owns west of Washington Park or UIC’s West Side bid, which is currently vacant property. And according to Bennett, the West Side site may be more beneficial than either of the South Side sites.

“My sense is that from a community development standpoint, the UIC bid is better, that it is proposing to put the library in a section of the West Side that could really use some sort of institutional anchor like that and in the case of the Obama Library, you could probably fit it into Jackson Park or Washington Park, but you’ve already got the University of Chicago there,” Bennett said.

Both of the University of Chicago’s bids would include parkland. This has invited controversy from Friends of the Park and mayoral candidates alike, but the bid still has overall community support. (Max Kleiner / The DePaulia)

Both of the University of Chicago’s bids would include parkland. This has invited controversy from Friends of the Park and mayoral candidates alike, but the bid still has overall community support. (Max Kleiner / The DePaulia)

The West Side site proposes for the library to be placed in the North Lawndale community, one of the poorest in the city. While Emanuel has helped that bid by making the city-owned land it would sit on available and by pledging to reopen the Kostner Blue Line stop among other infrastructural improvements, the mayor has previously stated his desire for the library to be located on the South Side.

For the city to secure the land for the South Side sites, it will require a vote by both the City Council and the Chicago Park District. Other competitors for the library include Columbia University in New York, where the president finished his undergraduate degree, and Hawaii, were he was born. Both bids have land lined up for their respective bids.

Wherever the library is placed, the impact on the community will likely be evident.

“It would be a prized institution in any of the neighborhoods mentioned, and it would also force the hand of the city and the CTA to do some things in terms of improving basic public services and transit access, which would also be good for those communities,” Bennett said.

Should U of C get the library, it has pledged to collaborate with area institutions, including DePaul.

“They wanted to create a presidential library that is more than just a place to hold the president’s papers and for researchers,” said DePaul President Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, C.M. “They actually wanted to rethink the idea of a presidential library as a convening place where lots of the world’s, and especially the city’s, issues could be worked on. It’s more than just a library. It’s a center of galvanizing thought and action.”

Holtschneider said that there are several existing projects that the university would like to work on at the library should it go to U of C.

“I like the conceptualization of what their library can be and do. I like that instead of inventing everything themselves, they partnered with good work already happening and said ‘How can we pull it together,” he said. “But right now, the heart of what they’re worried about is can they get the land.”

The Obamas are expected to choose the winner early this year.