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Developer Says He Would Sell if U. of C. Needs More Space for Obama Library

By Sam Cholke | January 19, 2015 5:25am
 Joseph Bowden said he would be willing to sell four row houses next to the University of Chicago's Washington Park site for the Barack Obama Presidential Library.
Joseph Bowden said he would be willing to sell four row houses next to the University of Chicago's Washington Park site for the Barack Obama Presidential Library.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

WASHINGTON PARK — The owners of another half-acre of Washington Park land at the center of the University of Chicago’s chosen site for the Barack Obama Presidential Library in the neighborhood have said they would consider selling if it would help get the library to Chicago.

Joseph Bowden, who controls five of the nine private properties near the proposed boundaries of the library campus, said last week that he has already warned renters that the properties may become part of the library campus if the Obama Foundation chooses the site in March.

“We have to do whatever we can to support this; if that means selling our property, we’ll sell our property,” he said.

But Bowden's land is not included in the plans the university made public Jan. 6, which included approximately 10 acres of university-, city- and Chicago Transit Authority-owned land between 54th Street and Garfield Boulevard, Prairie Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive, as well as 22 acres on the western edge of the neighborhood’s namesake park.

 This section shows the Washington Park section of a map the University of Chicago released Jan. 6 of its proposed sites for the Obama Library.
This section shows the Washington Park section of a map the University of Chicago released Jan. 6 of its proposed sites for the Obama Library.
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Courtesy of the University of Chicago

Nor is Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church at 5416 S. Calumet Ave. On Jan. 12, Rev. Anthony David O’Neil said he thought the congregation would consider moving to elsewhere in the neighborhood if it would help Chicago’s chances to get the library, but was never contacted by the university.

In total, a DNAinfo Chicago analysis found, the university has held back or declined to pursue an additional four-and-a-half acres of available land while saying publicly that it needed 22 acres of parkland in Washington Park to present a potential site large enough to be considered by the Obama Foundation.

While the university said it had no plans to pursue the land owned by Bowden, the church or others on the block, Bowden said that “common sense would tell you that ultimately this land will be needed."

Derek Douglas, vice president of civic engagement at the university, said at three public meetings last week that the university felt it needed to provide a minimum of 20 acres to the Obama Foundation to be competitive with the other bids, which is why it was including sections of parkland in Washington Park.

Friends of the Parks, the Washington Park Conservancy and other groups have urged the university and the Obama Foundation to search for vacant property to use instead of parkland.

The Washington Park neighborhood has 121 acres of vacant property, but Bowden said it would be tough to acquire an additional 10 acres next to the university’s current property.

Until 2012, Bowden owned nearly a third of the 10 acres of property now being put up by the university for the library. He said it took him five years to assemble the property and it would be extremely difficult to get up to the university’s threshold of 20 acres without using the city’s eminent domain powers.

“Eminent domain is a terrible, nasty word,” Bowden said. “That can make a lot of things happen, but what kind of bad taste would it leave in peoples’ mouths?”

Bowden said he was able to assemble as much land as he did because he made a personal appeal to each owner to sell so he could build a grocery store for the neighborhood. He said he also benefited from being able to relocate residents to other property he owned in the neighborhood.

Bowden, the church and other property owners said no one has approached them about selling.

Jerry Much, a developer who owns a vacant lot at 5409 S. Prairie Ave., praised the Washington Park option for the library, but declined to comment on his plans for his property. He said the university had not contacted him about the property.

Joseph Salamone, who owns the vacant lot at 5415 S. Prairie Ave., declined to comment.

Pamela Watkins, who lives in the only other building within the boundaries of the proposed library campus at 5422 S. Calumet Ave., could not be reached for comment.

If all five owners were to agree to sell, an additional acre of property would be available for the library, putting the total amount of land available outside the park at 11 acres, still shy of the 20 acres the university says it needs.

In addition, a DNAinfo analysis in December revealed the university and city own another three-and-a-half acres of property directly south of the current site along Garfield Boulevard.

Douglas said the property included the university’s Arts Incubator, Currency Exchange Cafe and land reserved for future development and was not being offered to the Obama Foundation, which is in charge of recommending a library site to the president.

Park advocates have been critical of the university for having up to 15 acres of land available and instead including an area of the park that is the city’s first tree arboretum and home to a stand of bur oaks older than the 145-year-old park.

"That's a fairly significant site," Cassandra Francis, president of Friends of the Parks, said of the 10 acres available outside the park. "That site would support an urban solution."

Francis was critical of the university’s claim it needed 20 acres. She pointed to the John F. Kennedy library in Boston, which sits on 10 acres.

Others have said giving up control of a portion of the 372-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted is worth it the sacrifice.

“How can you value the parkland more than the lives of the people in the community? We need this economic boost,” said Donna Hampton-Smith, director of the Washington Park Chamber of Commerce.

As an alternative site, the university has also proposed 21 acres in Jackson Park between 60th and 63rd streets on Stony Island Avenue. The University of Illinois at Chicago has proposed 23 acres of city-owned land in North Lawndale. Columbia University has offered 17 acres of land it owns in West Harlem in New York City.

The Obama Foundation is expected to recommend a site for the library to the president in March.

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