Chicago Wins Bid to Host Barack Obama Presidential Library

Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the Barack Obama Foundation, announced on Tuesday that the library would be built in Chicago’s South Side. (Credit: Joshua Lott for The New York Times)

CHICAGO — Maybe the Obamas will never return to live in Chicago after the presidency is over, their global celebrity pulling them toward New York or Los Angeles and away from the unpretentious Midwest. But Chicagoans will always have this: As it was formally announced on Tuesday, their city will be home to his presidential library.

“His journey began on the South Side and now we know that it will come full circle with his library coming home to the South Side of Chicago,” an elated Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on Tuesday at a ceremony here, where the Barack Obama Presidential Center, which is to include the library, museum and space for the president’s foundation, will be built.

But as Chicago officially notched a victory over New York and Hawaii, which were also contenders, it immediately turned to the next question: Where, exactly, on the South Side will the library be built?

The Obama Foundation says it is still undecided on the location and will make the announcement in roughly the next six to nine months. Two parks near the University of Chicago’s campus on the South Side are being considered for the library: Washington Park, a 380-acre space that borders several neighborhoods, including Washington Park and Hyde Park; and Jackson Park, which hugs both the neighborhood of Woodlawn and Lake Michigan, and is the site of the Museum of Science and Industry, a golf course, soccer fields and a children’s hospital. The transfer of about 20 acres where the library could be built was approved in February by the Chicago Park District.

City officials have trumpeted the project’s potential to give the South Side a much-needed influx of tourism, new jobs and economic development. (Credit: Joshua Lott for The New York Times)

The library will be built in a partnership with the University of Chicago, where President Obama once taught law, and could open by 2020 or 2021.  Amid the triumphant announcement and buoyant speeches by civic leaders, there are still concerns being raised by some people about the permanent loss of valuable parkland in a highly populated part of the city.

One nonprofit group, Friends of the Parks, has threatened to file a lawsuit to stop the library. The group had urged Mr. Obama to select a Chicago site not on parkland. It has also filed a lawsuit seeking to block a narrative arts museum from being built along the lakefront.

But by and large, residents of the South Side have been pinning their hopes on the library coming to their part of the city, which has a rich cultural heritage but also contains a large share of Chicago’s violent crime, blight and poverty. A new presidential library and museum would not just boost civic pride, those supporters say, but also give the area a much-needed influx of tourism, new jobs and economic development.

Such broad enthusiasm seems to have softened some of the opposition to using parkland. On Tuesday, Bonnie McDonald, the president of Landmarks Illinois, a preservation group that has in the past urged against building in Jackson or Washington Parks, said the group is “extremely proud” that Chicago has been chosen for the library and does not plan to file a lawsuit in opposition.

“We feel it is extremely positive for the city,” she said.

Byron T. Brazier, a prominent pastor who lives in Washington Park but works in Woodlawn, said in an interview that both communities are actively hoping and preparing for the possibility that they will be chosen — and the economic boost they hope would follow.

“I’m sure that there are those who are very particular about where it goes,” he said. “You always have that. But we are economically tied together; we share a common boundary; we share a common demographic. No matter where it is, both communities will still benefit from the library.”

Building in a park is a legally murky issue in Chicago, but state legislators passed a law this year intended to ease concerns and clear the way for the Obamas to choose the city over New York and Hawaii.

Some people, while reluctant about building on parkland, have made an exception for Mr. Obama, who arrived in Chicago as a young adult and began his political career and family here. (In a videotaped message on Tuesday, Mr. Obama proclaimed that it was in Chicago where he “really became a man.”)

Cecilia Butler, president of the Washington Park Advisory Council, said in an interview that she grew up fishing and attending day camps in Washington Park and lives in the surrounding neighborhood today. While she believes the parks should be protected in almost every circumstance, she also said that the president should be allowed to build there if he addresses community concerns.

“If the president of the United States wants to have his library in Washington Park, I think he deserves it,” Ms. Butler said. “We’re not talking about anyone else: Only one person and one family.”

Martin Nesbitt, a Chicago businessman and close friend of the Obamas who is the chairman of the foundation, said on Tuesday that Washington and Jackson Parks are “both terrific sites,” but that months of evaluation are needed before a decision can be made.

“There will be some qualitative issues that we have to figure out to decide which site is best,” he said, adding that Mr. Obama will “spend a lot of time working at the foundation” after his presidency.

The slice of Washington Park where the library could be built is near a newly renovated train station, adjacent to which are empty lots and shuttered storefronts.

On the other side of the park, which borders the University of Chicago campus, cars lined the streets and several students and residents were out and about.

Angela Dean, a South Side resident, said she was excited about the library and its economic potential, and did not have a preference for which park would host it. She dismissed concerns about erecting a building on parkland.

“It’s an open space,” said Ms. Dean, who was sitting on a bench in Washington Park and lives in the nearby Bronzeville neighborhood. “It will be good to put something there that’s monumental.”

Michael LaBarbera, 66, a retired University of Chicago professor who lives nearby, was also in Washington Park on Tuesday, and said he supported the library. Mr. LaBarbera, a frequent bird-watcher in both Washington and Jackson Parks, said he preferred Washington Park for the library because he believed the economic impact could be greater.

“I’m of mixed emotions of using parkland for other purposes,” he said. “But this is different. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The University of Hawaii, in the state where Mr. Obama was born, and Columbia University, where the president received his undergraduate degree, also bid for the project. The University of Illinois at Chicago, which proposed building the library on this city’s West Side, was also a finalist.

The Obama Foundation said it would collaborate with the other finalists, and mentioned plans “to maintain a presence at Columbia” and work with the state of Hawaii “to establish a lasting presence in Honolulu.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.