Three different groups on the South Side—the University of Chicago, the neighborhood of Bronzeville, and the Lakeside development—are finalizing submissions for the Obama Presidential Library as the deadline for the first stage in the bidding process approaches. The University has decided to submit several sites as options, with the possibility that the library and museum could be located in different areas.
The Barack Obama Foundation, a non-profit established in January for the sole purpose of developing the Obama Presidential Library, will make the final decision on the library’s location.
The Foundation has created a two-step process to decide where to place the library. On March 20 it released a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), in which it asked interested groups to submit documents detailing descriptions of sites, proof of community engagement, community impact, and site accessibility, among other features. Completed RFQs are due by June 16. The Foundation will then choose finalists whom they will ask for Requests for Proposals (RFP), to be completed by the end of September.
The University will submit a “menu” of options on the mid–South Side in its RFQ, according to several University officials. “We’ve been looking widely at a range of sites that could be potential. We’re not interested in focusing on one site or recommending one site,” Julie Peterson, vice president for communications, said.
Shirley J. Newsome, a member of the Community Advisory Board that was established to help the University with community engagement on the library, described the mid–South Side as roughly stretching from East 35th Street in the north to East 67th Street in the south and the Dan Ryan Expressway in the west to Lake Michigan in the east.
University officials have said the library will not be on campus. Susan Sher, senior adviser to President Zimmer and the leader of the University’s bid for the library, said the University is looking at sites within a couple of miles of campus. “We’ve kind of done a few-mile radius around the University of Chicago, but that makes it sound a lot more precise than it really is. So, you know, we’re not advocating for a site in Hyde Park,” Sher said. “I think the same probably is true for Kenwood, because frankly I’m not aware of any place in Kenwood that is big enough.”
Sher and Newsome declined to comment on specific locations the University was considering, but Leonard McGee, president of the Gap Community Organization in Bronzeville, said that he had been told by a University official during a meeting that the University had decided on three locations for its bid. “They have a site that’s at 55th and King Drive, a site that’s near the Museum [of Science and Industry]...then they have another site that’s near the [South Shore] cultural center,” he said. “When I personally spoke to someone from the University they said they wouldn’t be changing their sites and those are their three sites.”
Newsome said that the University may advocate for the museum portion of the library to be separated from the archives. “There’s something to be said to having the two on the same site. You would be in effect creating a campus, and that would have more impact on the area overall, but it would also require more land or more area,” she said.
The University envisions the archives and the museum as separate buildings even if they are at the same location. If the two are put in separate locations they would still be relatively close to each other, according to Newsome.
Sher said the University is clear about its wish to avoid forcing anyone to move. “There are a lot of areas with a fair amount of vacant land, so we’re more focusing on those than on areas where you’d have to displace people,” Sher said.
Sher and Newsome have both been meeting with dozens of organizations interested in learning more about the University’s bids, almost all of whom have been enthusiastic, they both said. “We have met with, I would say well over 60 groups,” Sher said. “I haven’t done a scientific study, but…I haven’t been in a situation where I’ve had anyone say, ‘Not in my backyard’ or, ‘It’s a bad idea.’”
McGee, however, criticized the University for not sharing enough about its proposal. “The University of Chicago came looking for a letter of support. They won’t tell you what’s in their plans but they want the letter of support. That’s like saying, ‘Why don’t you just sign the check, and we’ll fill out the amount later and let you know,’” he said.
Newsome said she understood some of those concerns but that the University can’t satisfy everyone. “I think what you’ll find is most people want to have it in their area somewhere, and so you get all kinds of responses or suggestions for possible locations. And I think in some instances that might be precipitated by the fact that they don’t have maybe a real accurate perception of how much space a presidential library takes,” she said.
The University is not the only group on the South Side interested in the presidential library. McCaffery Interests’ Chicago Lakeside development property, located around eight miles south of the University, will be submitting an RFQ independently, but they still hope to work with the University.
Ed Woodbury, president of McCaffery Interests, said that University officials have visited the Lakeside site several times. “We have had conversations, we’ve had President Zimmer down there, and we’ve had community engagement staff down there,” he said. “The conversations are more in-depth than just touring around the site. We’ve done a fair amount of engagement with the University.”
Woodbury declined to state whether the University had decided to put Lakeside within its list of sites, but said that he hoped that it would. “I think the interesting thing is that the conversations in the newspapers we’ve read have talked about the idea of multiple sites, and I think Lakeside could fit into one of those multiples,” he said.
Regardless, McCaffery Interests is proceeding with its own RFQ, which Woodbury said is already well underway.
Bronzeville is home to two separate visions for a presidential library. Both advocate for the old Michael Reese Hospital site at 2929 South Ellis Avenue as an ideal location for the library. The University is not considering that site in its bid for the library, Newsome said.
The Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Commission (BMNHAC), a Bronzeville group that is seeking to get the neighborhood designated as a National Heritage Area, is submitting a full RFQ with the Michael Reese site as its proposed location. Paula Robinson, the president of BMNHAC, said the site is best equipped to handle the expected 800,000 visitors a year, a number proposed by a University study.
BMNHAC focuses on the Obama library as the capstone of a larger National Heritage Area that celebrates the area’s historic African American roots. Leonard McGee’s Gap Community Organization is advocating for the Michael Reese site as the best location in and of itself for the library. They are submitting a“vision” rather than a bid, answering only parts of the RFQ.
“We’re not trying to highlight Bronzeville, we’re trying to highlight the presidential library campus,” McGee said. “It provides another tooth on the skyline of Chicago so when people fly into Chicago they see, ‘That’s where I’m going to visit.’”
--Additional reporting by Felicia Woron