The University of Chicago is proposing that the Obama presidential library be built on about 20 acres of South Side parkland, either in Washington or Jackson parks, according to the university.
The information, released Tuesday, was privately submitted last month to the president and first lady. Since then, pressure has built from library planners who are hoping to avoid any real estate or legal challenges associated with building a library in a public park.
The two sites are:
•21 acres in western Jackson Park, bounded by South Stony Island Avenue to the west, South Cornell Avenue to the east, East 60th Street to the north and East 63rd Street to the south.
The parcels outside of Washington Park are controlled by a combination of owners, including the U. of C., the city of Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority and private individuals or companies.
The museum is expected to occupy only a fraction of the land. As a comparison, if the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas were to be spread out on one floor, it would take up about 5 acres. The entire campus measures 23 acres.
“In the first place, there’s a long tradition of museums in the parks in Chicago,” said Susan Sher, who is leading the U. of C.’s library bid, about the use of parkland. “When you look at the possibilities and the criteria of having enough space for the legacy of a major historical figure, you can’t just plop it in the middle of a shopping center.”
In her discussions, Sher said, residents of neighborhoods surrounding the university have jockeyed for the library. Sher has not found any “not-in-my-backyard” resentment, she said.
Residents will get a chance to publicly weigh in at two community hearings, Jan. 13 and Jan. 14, at Hyde Park Academy High School and the Washington Park Fieldhouse,respectively. The Park District is weighing whether to transfer the parcels to City Hall control. Such control was stipulated by library planners, led by Chicago private equity executive Martin Nesbitt.
“Washington Park as a whole, there are areas that are utilized, like the ball fields,” Sher said. “There are areas that are really underutilized, and then there are areas like the one we’re talking about. Let’s just say it’s not in good shape. It’s an opportunity to restore an Olmsted park. … Jackson Park also has areas that are in great need of restoration.”
At stake are likely hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation and other infrastructure improvements, including economic development grants.
The 350-acre Washington Park was designed by legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, designers of New York’s Central Park. Olmsted also laid out the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Jackson Park. That area was the home of Daniel Burnham’s famed “White City,” of which only the Museum of Science and Industry remains.
The historical value also explains why preservationists recently sent a letter to Barack and Michelle Obama opposing any loss of space there, even as university officials advocate for adding parkland elsewhere to offset losses to the museum.
The U. of C. has long been viewed as the front-runner to host the library, but it faces stiff competition from Columbia University in New York, where land in West Harlem is ready. The University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Hawaii also are vying for the project.
U. of C. spokesman Jeremy Manier said the university would not release any conceptual renderings or designs of the buildings.
The university did release a map detailing the potential for private development in the area, should a library come to the South Side, which included aspirations for 63rd Street as an “education corridor” and a “cultural ribbon” connecting Washington Park with a “renewed Jackson Park.”
UIC, however, released its entire plan in December, which envisioned a spectacular park and buildings spanning the Circle Interchange.
“We have some ideas, but they’re meaningless,” Sher said. “It’s totally up to the foundation. For example, they may choose, if we’re fortunate enough to win this, maybe they’ll choose the piece of land west of Washington Park and use the park for the first lady’s garden. I’m just making this up because I have no say in this.”
Sher noted that Kennedy library architect I.M. Pei picked the exact location of the building while on a walk of the Boston site with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“The foundation will hire an architect,” Sher said. “That architect will decide exactly what spot it will be on. And what the it is. Will it be one building? Will it be two buildings connected by a courtyard the way the Bush museum is? That kind of planning is not possible to do yet, and it’s not up to us.”
Proposals from the library bidders, due last month, were asked to include “a detailed proposed process to obtain control of the site and convey it to the foundation.”
That process is far from settled.
A source close to the city said recently that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had scrapped a U. of C. proposal to put the library at the South Shore Cultural Center, citing sensitivity surrounding lakefront development.
If the library were to go on parkland, the land likely would be transferred from the Park District to city of Chicago. From there, an option may be a long-term lease of the land to the foundation, an agreement similar to ones other Chicago museums operate under, sources said. Both Park District board and City Council approval are needed.
Sher said there were too many variables to address such issues earlier. “Because there were so many sites at issue. It seemed that we were going to be getting people sort of riled up about three sites, when we now know one wasn’t even possible. …
“Even now I feel uncomfortable, because I know it won’t be bigger than the acreage we’ve outlined, but it might be a much smaller footprint.”