WASHINGTON PARK — The University of Chicago has spent the last six years quietly spending more than $18 million to snap up 26 properties in the Washington Park neighborhood on the South Side — the location many believe will become the home of the Barack Obama presidential library.
Most of the properties sit along Garfield Boulevard and Martin Luther King Drive, and make up several contiguous square city blocks, a DNAinfo Chicago analysis of Cook County property records found. Along with a few city-owned properties on the blocks, the land totals about 10 acres.
With a Thursday deadline looming for U. of C. and the three remaining contenders for the library to submit more detailed proposals to the Barack Obama Foundation, many expect to see the largely vacant and weed-filled blocks in Washington Park — where the only remaining working business is a university-owned gas station — as the leading contender for the library.
The site is across the street from the neighborhood's namesake park, and the university's Center for Care and Discovery and the rest of the campus is visible over the tree line to the east. It's also close to the Garfield stop on the CTA's Green Line.
“Based on my conversations with the university, I think it is their preferred site,” said Torrey Barrett, director of the KLEO Center at 119 E. Garfield Blvd., who helped with the university’s first-round pitch to the Obama Foundation in June and strongly supports the bid. “I think this is a prime location for it to happen.”
The university also has proposed sites at the South Shore Cultural Center and Jackson Park.
Arnetha Gholston-Habeel, director of the R.T.W. Veterans Center at 5536 S. Martin Luther King Drive, had no idea of the scale of the university’s interest in the Washington Park neighborhood until she tried to buy the neighboring city-owned lot to the north, where the veterans grow vegetables for the 450 meals the center serves daily.
The veteran’s center in a three-story greystone building is now surrounded by city-owned lots and U. of C. property.
She said Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) cited the Obama library on Dec. 1 as the reason he couldn't support the city selling her the lot.
“It was bugging me, because I kept thinking, ‘What does the Obama library have to do with us?’” Gholston-Habeel said.
Cochran didn't respond to requests for comment.
Gholston-Habeel said the university approached her in 2012 about selling her property, but she never seriously considered it at the time.
But “if they get the library there, we don’t even have to talk about it, we’re done,” Gholston-Habeel said.
She said she thinks the city would use eminent domain powers or public pressure to get her to sell if the site is chosen, and her center could end up being a parking lot for the library.
Whatever happens with her land, some property owners have profited handsomely from the university’s eagerness to secure the property over the years. U. of C. had an endowment worth $7.47 billion in June.
In March, Saib Sweis was the last to cash out. For $1.1 million, he signed over to the university the Jardan Food and Liquor store he ran next to the Green Line tracks at 317 E. Garfield Blvd. for more than 30 years.
With the purchase of the liquor store, the university locked down its 26th purchase in the Washington Park neighborhood and became the only private property owner on Garfield Boulevard between King Drive and Prairie Avenue and on nearly four more blocks on King Drive from 54th to 56th streets.
Purchases started before Obama's presidency
Though an Obama library now could seem like an obvious end-goal, the politician who still has a home in Kenwood had only just become the Democratic presidential nominee when the university started buying property in Washington Park in the summer of 2008.
At the time, the university hadn’t tried to acquire much property in any of the predominantly black neighborhoods around campus in nearly half a century. Its last major effort to buy in a black neighborhood was shot down in 1964 after a clash with the Woodlawn Organization over a plan to expand the campus south. The battle ended with the university publicly pledging to keep the campus to the north of 61st Street in a deal that still holds 50 years later.
But in 2008, the university didn’t tell aldermen or community groups when it bought the neighborhood’s former grocery store at the Washington Park Shopping Center at 356 E. Garfield Blvd. for $5 million.
A month after the deal went down, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) lashed out when she found out about the purchases, calling the university “greedy” and claiming the school was land banking in an interview with the Hyde Park Herald.
"Their eyes are bigger than their stomachs," Dowell said of university officials at the time. "They're being greedy."
In response to the purchases now, Dowell said in a statement that "we continue to work with our community and the University in the Washington Park neighborhood. We are always looking for opportunities in the Washington Park area that are part of the 3rd Ward."
But by the time Dowell became aware of the sale in 2008, eight other property owners had already agreed to sell to the university, some demanding enormous markups.
Mohammad Ahmad of Orland Park bought KPC Discount Muffler at 365 E. Garfield Blvd. for $240,000 in February of 2008 and then sold it to the university for $850,000 10 months later.
Bringing 'vibrancy to the area'
After a backlash from aldermen and community groups over the purchases, the university agreed to a series of public meetings, and in September 2011 announced it would open an art gallery with the renowned artist Theaster Gates in an empty terra cotta building at 310 E. Garfield Blvd. to strengthen its relationship with neighbors.
“We purchased land in Washington Park to help catalyze economic development and bring new vibrancy to the area,” Calmetta Coleman, a university spokeswoman, said late last week. “By working closely with local elected officials and community members in a participatory development process, we believe we can find uses that benefit both the university and community.”
Coleman confirmed the purchases, but declined to detail plans for the land or comment on whether it was being considered as part of a presidential library proposal.
It wasn’t long after the announcement of the Arts Incubator in 2011 that the university was closing deals on property again.
The owner of a Citgo gas station, who in 2008 said he would never sell, signed the rights to the property over to the university for $2.4 million in the fall of 2011. He continues to run the station until the university comes to claim the land.
In 2012, the purchases continued, and the university targeted the speculators who lost big when the city didn’t secure the 2016 Olympics and plans to put the main stadium in the middle of the neighborhood's namesake park evaporated.
In October of that year, developer Joseph Bowden sold property on the 5400 block of Martin Luther King Drive to the university for $2.8 million, according to Cook County records.
He had purchased the land — then a half-block of weed-filled lots — with partner Paul Pappageorge in 2007 for $11.2 million from the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Their plan to build 1.3 million square feet of office and retail space never materialized.
But Bowden sold seven other properties he had bought for $1 million to the university for $2.6 million, this time taking in a tidy $1.6 million profit.
With Bowden’s lots, the university now controls 26 properties that it has paid $18.3 million to acquire.
Few details released publicly
The university has said little publicly about what it plans to do with the properties, but released a study saying Chicago could get 1,900 new jobs and $200 million jolt in economic activity if the library is put on the South Side.
The school also hosted meetings at the Arts Incubator over the summer about future plans for the properties (although the talks excluded the properties bought from Bowden). At the meetings, officials asked residents if they would be in favor of converting a muffler shop to a space for outdoor events and include an area for food trucks.
Cecilia Butler, president of the Washington Park Advisory Council and Washington Park Residents Advisory Council, said the meetings were a sort of fantasy that denied the unmet needs the university created in the neighborhood when it shut down Jardan Food and Liquors.
"People were mad that all the university wanted to talk about was arts and culture when people wanted a grocery store," Butler said of meetings in September. "The university is doing exactly what people hoped they wouldn't do."
The Arts Incubator plans to expand, with a groundbreaking expected in the coming weeks for a new rain garden and pavilion on city-owned lot at 256 E. Garfield Blvd. Dowell has cheered the incubator in the past, saying at its opening in 2013 that building was "the most appropriate way to enter the Washington Park community."
The Obama Foundation said it will make a decision on where to put the library early next year. Butler said whatever happens to the U. of C.-owned land, the community plans to hold the school accountable.
"This is America: Anyone can buy anything they want. The difference is we know where the university lives," Butler said.
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