CHICAGO » President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have selected historic Jackson Park, just east of the University of Chicago, as the site for the Obama Presidential Center, a source confirmed today. A formal announcement is expected next week.
Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the Obama Foundation, declined to confirm or deny that the library would go to Jackson Park. He said his staff was in the process of scheduling a day to make the announcement but would not say if it was imminent.
In choosing Jackson Park over Washington Park, the other finalist site, the Obamas have opted for the less challenging of the two options. Both gracious South Side parks were designed by legendary 19th century landscape designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, but the Jackson Park site is cloaked in a more powerful collection of assets.
Located near the Museum of Science and Industry, the lakefront and the eastern edge of the University of Chicago campus, the site allows for the creation of a museum campus in the heart of the park, accented by an existing lagoon, lush woods and greenery. The winding 543-acre park is an oasis on the South Side. The center would be a short hop to either Lake Shore Drive or to two Metra train stations, strong pulls for visitors.
Jackson Park’s western edge along Stony Island Avenue connects with Woodlawn, an impoverished African-American neighborhood but one that is beginning to gentrify. And the Hyde Park neighborhood, just north of Woodlawn and surrounding the university, already is booming.
All those attributes gave the location a leg up on the long-neglected Washington Park neighborhood.
Still, the challenge of revitalizing poor African-American neighborhoods can be overwhelming and often ends in failure — presenting the Obamas with an enormous task as they seek to position the center as a catalyst for neighborhood revitalization.
The hurdles would have been higher in the neighborhood near Washington Park, where one-third of the land is vacant. Decades ago the area was central to Chicago’s Black Belt, a robust cluster of neighborhoods that drew African-Americans from the South during the Great Migration. During the past half-century the population has plummeted, and nearly half the remaining residents live in poverty in an area plagued by crime.
Washington Park had been the centerpiece of the city’s 2016 Olympic bid — the site for a massive temporary stadium and swimming venue — and many residents believed that endeavor would help turn around their impoverished neighborhood just west of the park. The bid failed in 2009, and now residents of this struggling area must live with a second major disappointment.
The Obama Presidential Center, estimated to cost at least $500 million, will include a library housing the presidential archives, a museum devoted to Obama’s eight-year tenure and the headquarters of the Obama Foundation, the organization that will fund the design, construction and planning of the center. The building will be Chicago’s first presidential library and one of the highest-profile architectural projects in the city’s pipeline.
Renowned architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien were chosen in June to lead the design of the library, aided by Chicago-based Interactive Design Architects. Williams and Tsien designed the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, which drew praise when it opened in 2012. Tsien will be the first woman to co-design a U.S. presidential library.
The library represents the first time a U.S. president has opted to locate his archives and museum in a poor neighborhood away from a city center. The project could define Obama’s post-presidential legacy, observers have said.
Woodlawn, the neighborhood west of the park that has seen decades of unfulfilled promises for redevelopment, has tracts available for nearby projects.
Neighborhood activists are putting the finishing touches on an extensive revitalization plan they hope will bring affordable housing, public transit improvements, retail development and a manufacturing facility to the community. The effort is led by the Arthur M. Brazier Foundation, named for the late pastor of the Apostolic Church of God. The church is a major neighborhood anchor.
Nearly one-third of the vacant land available for redevelopment is clustered near 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue, where the church and the nonprofit Woodlawn Community Development Corp. are the biggest landowners.
The University of Chicago, which put forward both Washington and Jackson parks in its bid to bring the library to the South Side, commissioned a study that found the project could generate $31 million in food and other retail development in the adjacent neighborhood. That could translate into as many as 30 restaurants, 11 stores and a hotel, the report found.
The Jackson Park site runs along the east side of Stony Island Avenue, from the Midway Plaisance on the north to 63rd Street on the south. Its eastern edge faces the Wooded Island, an iconic feature of Jackson Park located just south of the Museum of Science and Industry.
The city has promised a variety of improvements to accompany a presidential library in Woodlawn, including working with Metra to upgrade nearby stations, improving street lighting and widening walkways and bike lanes.
The National Archives and Records Administration operates and maintains presidential libraries. The Obama Foundation must provide NARA with an endowment equal to 60 percent of the cost of building the facility to help cover those future expenses.
The selection of a site in Chicago, where Obama built his career, capped a two-year process that drew more than 13 potential bidders. The foundation also will have a presence at Columbia University in New York, where Obama earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, and in Honolulu, Obama’s birthplace.
Construction is not expected to start until well after Obama leaves office in January. The foundation still must raise hundreds of millions of dollars. And the design process could take up to two years. The aim is to finish the project by 2021.