A presidential library could help revive the city’s struggling neighborhoods.
Chicago Lakeside Development's Dan McCaffery stands in the area on the old U.S. Steel Mill site on Chicago's South Side where he wants to build the Obama Presidential library, March 31, 2014. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
CHICAGO – For people who don’t live in the South Side neighborhood of Washington Park, there is no reason to take the train to the Garfield station.
Though barely a mile from the stately University of Chicago campus, the desolate block of East Garfield Boulevard between Martin Luther King Drive and Prairie Avenue has little to offer, mostly one shuttered storefront after another and remnants of broken signage from businesses that once beckoned customers.
But it’s possible that the landscape could change. Washington Park residents are pinning their hopes on President Obama — that he will select the university to host his presidential library and that the university will build it on the swath of vacant, city-owned land adjacent to the tracks.
While the site for the library will not be announced until early 2015, Chicago is considered by some observers to be the front-runner, partly because of the president and First Lady Michelle Obama’s personal and political ties to the city. Bids also are expected from Honolulu and New York.
Across Chicago, other neighborhoods also are wagering their dreams of a cultural and economic renaissance on the Obama library. At least five community groups, universities or developers are preparing bids for the library, hoping to benefit from the boon that is expected to follow.
Inspiration and money
“Placing the library in the middle of an urban community would bring opportunity, economic development and inspiration,” said Carol Adams, director of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park. “Kids could just be passing by and stop in. They wouldn’t have to wait on school trips, with something as fantastic as a presidential library just down the street or around the corner from where they live.”
None of the 13 presidential libraries and museums administered by the National Archives and Records Administration has been built in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood. So the challenge of using a presidential library as an economic engine to overhaul a neighborhood is completely untested.
“When you look at a library, you have to look at the surrounding vicinity. It is unusual to try to rehabilitate part of an urban area by resurrecting a presidential library. There could be a risk of crime, poverty or reputation, and all of it has to be considered,” said Curt Smith, a senior lecturer at the University of Rochester and author of the book “Windows on the White House: The Story of Presidential Libraries.”
“It’s a noble thought to say, ‘We’re going to use the presidential library as a vehicle to rehabilitate an area.’ But in doing that, you have to make sure you don’t damage the library as a whole and end up not helping anyone,” he said.
Just south of McCormick Place, residents want the library built on the site of the former Michael Reese Hospital, a 48-acre property owned by the city. Developer Dan McCaffery wants the library to anchor his $4 billion retail and residential development planned on the old U.S. Steel South Works site. The University of Illinois at Chicago is looking at six sites to offer for the library. Chicago State University has identified two potential sites on its South Side campus, and a third site in the Pullman Historic District.
City will back any bid
With so many entities preparing to vie for the library, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has backed off his earlier goal of formulating a unified bid from Chicago. Instead, the city will support any bid.
University officials have not indicated a preference for a specific site.
Marshall Brown, an assistant professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said location is important.
Brown, who led graduate students in a project to design their own visions for the campus, cited President John F. Kennedy’s library, which sits on a peninsula jutting into a bay in Boston, as an example.
“The [Kennedy] library, which has been sitting on Columbia Point in Boston since the 1980s, has attracted very little energy,” he said. “There’s a limit to how remote these facilities can be before they’re actually not that effective at attracting large numbers of people or economic development.”