And They’re Off.. The Race to the Obama Library

In case you missed the announcement, The Barack Obama Foundation has released the request for qualifications to build the library memorializing our first black president. Competition is fierce. Hawaii is claiming their native son.  Sorry dunkoffs, Kenya is not under consideration.  Colombia University in New York would like to snag the bid to honor one of their most famous alums and then there is Chicago.

At the moment speculation is that Chicago will eventually win the bid but I recall this same amount of assurance about the Olympics.  There were a lot of fallen faces on that day. This may not be any better if Chicago players don’t find a way to work together to submit one bid. This is the wish of Mayor Rahm.

So here are the current players.  University of Illinois is vying for a west side site. Of course the University of Chicago has a stake in the game. The President taught constitutional law there. Michelle has roots at U of C and the family has a home in Hyde Park. I also have to give the U of C team a nod for acknowledging that they are willing to work with other groups to get a site on the south side.  Those others include Chicago State University (CSU). Frankly the CSU site seems like a real stretch. Why? CSU just doesn't seem to have the space, neither the close ties to the Obama's nor the appeal of a world known university.  True it is an historically black institution and the Obama's are black. OK so that's the stretch.

The proposed site at the Lakeside Development project reaching from 79th street on the north to 87th Street on the south and extending into Lake Michigan is another project vying for the Obama Foundation nod. Purely by coincidence I visited the Lakeside Development ( the day of the announcement and before I knew the request for qualifications was available. The site is phenomenal. Once home to U.S. Steel Southworks plant, the 600 acres plot is being transformed into a walkable, sustainable, multipurpose village inside the city of Chicago. The timeline for this monumental endeavor is 40 years.  It would also be the site for the Obama Presidential Library if the developers can swing it.

The far south east side needs development.  I can’t argue that.  In fact most of the City could stand increase in business opportunities and anything promoting renewable energy, sustainable neighborhoods and the like but putting the coveted Obama library in this wondrous development may not align well with the aim to be sustainable. Why? Getting there.

I had heard rumors suggesting the Lakeside development but I just couldn’t wrap my mind around this as a logical choice any more than I could see Chicago State University. How would you get there on public transportation? An even bigger question is what about the vehicle traffic?  I just bet all the residents along Lake Shore Drive south and the South Shore communities will just love the idea of all those thousands of cars.  It’s not a very “green” concept even if the vehicle traffic is predominately  electric or bio-fuel or whatever crafty humans are able to come up with.  So back to public transportation. Here are some examples.

Say you are coming from O’Hare airport.  You take a train, two buses and walk 1.5 miles. Too far? Let’s come from McCormick Place. You hop the Metra; transfer to the bus and then walk the 1.5 miles.  With this route you also get to pay two fares. I seriously believe if the library were to be built at this site, the CTA and Metra would finally find some way to work together to make this feasible. However there are other options.

There is a long stretch of vacant lots along Garfield Boulevard west of Washington Park. During the recent upgrade of the CTA Red line, land on Garfield was used for the transfer point from train to shuttle buses. I know this site is not nearly as glamorous as the lake front but it is well situated for transportation.  The Green Line train would practically stop in the library.  The Red Line is a few blocks away.  The Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive bus is less than a block from the Garfield Green Line stop and the #55 runs east (Hyde Park and U of C) and west down Garfield to Midway Airport. There is an exit from the Dan Ryan at Garfield Boulevard.  Coming from the north cars can merge to the Ryan from 55.  The Ryan is almost always a tangled mess but unlike the current lack of public transportation at Lakeside, the Garfield site has public transportation in spades not to mention this neighborhood certainly needs an economic shot in the arm.  Just a few days ago the City announced that property holders in Washington Park and not for profits might be able to purchase city owned vacant lots for a dollar!

Our next stop is the Michael Reese Hospital site. I’ve written about this before ( and In 2009 the city of Chicago jumped at the chance to purchase the 37 acres site for the planned Olympic Village at a 91 million dollar price tag. Oops, we didn’t get the Olympics. On to the next plan, a casino.  The Bronzeville community provided some unexpected blow back to that idea. Too many people looked at their restored Victorian homes that cost them a small fortune to renovate and worried about their property values. From the research I did they had every right to be concerned. So now what?

I know the history of this complex that was built in 1880 by the largess of a wealthy Jewish real estate developer. His intent to build a health facility serving all races, creeds and nationalities was carried out even after his death in 1871. I myself was born at Michael Reese Hospital.

I’ve talked to a lot of Bronzeville residents who have long histories in Bronzeville, like me, and I've chatted with others whose experiences here are shorter. I haven’t met one yet who didn’t embrace the idea of our President’s library being situated on this site. I’m just about certain I will get some cons after this post.  I welcome them but how does the MRH site compare to other contenders?

It does reach the lake front. That compares it to Lakeside and offers a water taxi opportunity. It is close to Lake Shore Drive and the 55 exchange.  There is a Metra stop.  Both the #3 and #4 buses pass the site. There is no CTA line immediately close but most of the trains run into the Loop where both the #3 and #4 buses run on a fairly regular schedule. It is very close to McCormick Place, the new marina at 31st Street.  My favorite plus is the proximity to the museum campus. Face it; it would be real easy to run a shuttle from the museum campus to the library site.

The decision committee at the Obama Library Foundation has requested that the proposals reflect President Obama’s words.  “Our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared.” Believe it or not I really am not biased about the site chosen.  I like the idea of MRH but I’m not wedded to it.  Chicago needs to win this bid. I don’t think we should assume we will get it. You know the old saying about assume. It makes an ass of you and me.  We don’t want another episode like the Olympics.  In- fighting will certainly bring down our point score.  We are supposed to be the city that works. So work together bidders. Leave politics and egos at the door. Share the destiny.

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