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Obama Library Sought to Anchor New Reese Development in Bronzeville

By Wendell Hutson | April 19, 2013 9:49am | Updated on April 19, 2013 1:13pm

BRONZEVILLE — Hosting President Barack Obama's presidential library at the former Michael Reese Hospital campus site topped a redevelopment wish list at a meeting of some 200 South Side residents Thursday night.

"Having the president's library in Bronzeville would boost tourism [in Chicago] tremendously and help spur more economic development," Charlene Guss, 58, who grew up in Bronzeville, said at a community meeting at West Point Missionary Baptist Church.

"President Obama needs to have his library in a black neighborhood with a lot of history, and it does not get any better than Bronzeville," Guss said.

The library was one of several issues suggested for developing the 37-acre Michael Reese Hospital campus at 2929 S. Ellis Ave.

The hospital campus, which is currently vacant, closed in 2008 and was later purchased by the city for $85 million. Had the city won its bid for 2016 Olympics, the campus would have been redeveloped into a temporary residential complex for athletes.

Harold Lucas, president and chief executive officer of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council in Bronzeville, has, since 2011, spearheaded a community effort to bring Obama's library to Bronzeville.

"I know the University of Chicago is trying to sway the president to have his library with them but I am hoping he picks Bronzeville instead," Lucas said. "There is no other community in the city like Bronzeville and having a presidential library here would complete the redevelopment of Bronzeville which has been going since the 1990s."

According to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, there are 13 presidential libraries. The libraries preserve and make available presidential papers, records, collections and other historical materials.

The president's home state of Hawaii is also angling to host the library.

Ald. Will Burns (4th), whose ward includes the Michael Reese site, said it would "be great" to have the presidential library. But he is also not opposed to a casino anchoring the redevelopment, something supported by some residents, as well.

"A casino is not a guarantee but it is something I am open to as a possible anchor for this project," said Burns.

Other suggestions from residents included building an athletic field that could be used by athletes from nearby high schools. Also suggested as anchors were a convention hotel, a technology park and an indoor shopping mall.

Leonard McGee, 60, a project manager for the state, said he attended two previous community meetings.

"It sounds like we are starting over again. At the last two meetings, we were broken up into groups for 15 minutes where we had to come up with redevelopment ideas, and we're doing that again tonight," McGee said. "I want to know what was decided with the ideas we [residents] offered at the last two meetings."

Representatives from Chicago architecture firm Skidmore Owings & Merrill, who moderated the meeting, said previous ideas are still being evaluated as the final plan continues to be developed.

Regardless what the final plan includes, Paula Robinson, president of the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Commission in Bronzeville, said the property is "developer sirloin" and should be built into something great.

"Las Vegas, Orlando, Los Angeles are all big tourism cities and once this project is complete they should look at it and say: 'Wow, look what Chicago has done.' We should not be following projects in other cities but rather they should be following us," Robinson said. "After all, we're Chicago. The city that does not sleep."