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University of Chicago Neighbors Make Their Case for Obama Library

By Sam Cholke | February 6, 2014 8:58am
 A rendering prepared by Skidmore, Owens and Merrill shows the former Michael Reese Hospital site redeveloped as home to the Obama library or a casino.
A rendering prepared by Skidmore, Owens and Merrill shows the former Michael Reese Hospital site redeveloped as home to the Obama library or a casino.
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Skidmore, Owens and Merrill

HYDE PARK — Now that the University of Chicago is officially after the Obama Presidential Library for the South Side, community groups are rushing to remake their case for their neighborhoods.

“I think the Michael Reese site is one of the best locations on the near South Side,” said Leonard McGee, head of the Gap Community Organization, of the 48-acre former hospital grounds owned by the city. “Does it physically have to be on campus? I don’t think it does.”

Early indications are the university may not want an Obama library in Hyde Park at all.

“I strongly believe the Obama Presidential Library would be ideal for one of our neighboring communities on the South Side of Chicago,” University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer said Friday.

Community groups are now asking themselves, “Who does the university consider its neighbor?”

McGee and others are hoping the university thinks of Bronzeville as a neighbor and will push for the library at the former Michael Reese Hospital property to fend off a possible casino at the site.

“From a long vision, the Obama library is more viable,” McGee said.

A presidential library in Bronzeville would cost the city considerably more to build and mean reduced tax revenue compared to a casino, according to a report last year from Skidmore, Owens and Merrill commissioned by the city on possible uses for the site.

The city owes $91 million on the property it purchased in 2009 during Mayor Richard M. Daley’s bid for the 2016 Olympics. Mayor Rahm Emanuel refinanced the city’s loan in 2012, pushing the first payments off until October of this year.

With the Obama Foundation, which is tasked with finding a site for the library, not scheduled to make a decision until early 2015, the city may opt for a project that can start bringing in revenue sooner.

A spokesman for the city’s Department of Housing and Urban Development was unable to comment on how the timetable for the library was affecting the city’s decisions on the Michael Reese site.

The site is in the 4th Ward and former 4th Ward Ald. Shirley Newsome is on the university’s community advisory board for the university’s bid for the library.

Newsome said she could not comment on any possible locations, but said that Hyde Park has already seen significant investment from the university that has resulted in increased business on 53rd Street.

Others are hoping the university is thinking of Woodlawn as its neighbor.

Michael Sorkin, an architect and architecture critic, has made the case for Woodlawn and presented a 32-page plan for putting the library south of campus as a way to ease old tensions between the affluent university and its poorer neighbor to the south.

“The tools the president can bring to the situation consist in assuring that Woodlawn authentically benefits, that this is not an occasion for exclusionary gentrification, that the mix of people and uses in Woodlawn is embraced and enhanced with sensitivity, that there be protection, inclusion and opportunity for those at the bottom of the skills and income distribution,” Sorkin said in an October column for The Nation.

Sorkin proposed putting the library and a new technical training school between the University of Chicago Law School, where Obama used to lecture, and the University of Chicago Woodlawn Charter School at 6420 S. University Ave.

The site selection will be lead by Marty Nesbitt, a close friend of the Obamas who lives in Kenwood.

Nesbitt’s participation may rule out Kenwood as the neighboring community Zimmer was referring to.

Nesbitt and his wife, Dr. Anita Blanchard, both publicly spoke out against increased commercial activity near their home on the 4800 block of South Woodlawn Avenue late last year when Jennifer Pritzker proposed turning two Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes into a bed and breakfast. Both Nesbitt and Blanchard said at the time that the character of the neighborhood was defined by its single-family homes.

Nesbitt could not be reached for comment.

Other possible sites of interest to the university include the Washington Park neighborhood, where the university has acquired property around the Garfield Boulevard El stop in the last six years.

Community groups, led by Chicago State University, are also hoping the library will locate in the Roseland and Pullman neighborhoods. And the University of Illinois-Chicago is also angling for the project.