South Side to Host Obama Presidential Library

After months of speculation, the Barack Obama Foundation officially announces the Presidential Library and Museum is coming to the South Side of Chicago. The head of the Obama Foundation joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel, University of Chicago and South Side community leaders to make the official announcement. But for those holding their breath to find out whether or not they've decided on Washington Park versus Jackson Park: hold your breath a little longer.

​It’s being touted as the first ever urban presidential library, and foundation officials anticipate it will be the most visited presidential library in the country.

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Obama Foundation Chairman Marty Nesbitt hinted that it was always Chicago’s to lose, but that it did need the city to turnover that parkland to put the bid over the top. 

​Watch the foundation’s press conference at the Gary Comer Youth Center on the city’s South Side. 

This morning, the president and first lady explained that it was their dream to come back to where it all began.

“With a library and foundation on the South Side of Chicago, not only can we encourage and affect change locally,” Obama said in the video released on the foundation’s website. “But we can also attract the world to Chicago.”

Watch the video.

Nesbitt explained that the foundation will still have some work to do vetting both Washington Park and Jackson Park, and that the final decision on that may not come for another 6-9 months.

“We think they’re both terrific sites,” Nesbitt said. ”There’s just some physical due diligence that still needs to be done on the land and conditions.”

When Nesbitt was asked about the concerns of park preservationists who believe public parks should not be built on, Nesbitt responded that he felt the overwhelming sentiment was positive for the project.

“Though there’s risk and we’re fraught with folks that may be against this, as we go forward, we feel there’s so much support from the community and the state that it’s worth pursuing,” he said.

Community leaders and politicians in attendance at the event seemed almost unanimous on which park should be chosen. 

“Washington Park is the easiest and simplest place for it to be,“ said longtime South Side activist and historian Timuel Black. “You can explain the president’s rise from relatively unknown person to the president more easily in Washington Park than any other place I can think of.”

Congressman Bobby Rush“Washington Park is more central to the president because as a state senator, he represented Washington Park,” Congressman Bobby Rush said.

The Obama Center is slated to open as soon as 2020, according to Nesbitt, and what it’ll look like remains to be seen.

He made it clear, though, that it would not only partner with its university sponsor – the University of Chicago – but the entire South Side community to help spur revitalization. The university believes the building of the center alone will drop $600 million into the local economy, with a $224 million annual bump every year. Local aldermen today said they plan to ensure that their community members see the impact.

“It’s a huge benefit to the community,” said Ald. Will Burns, whose 4th ward covers Hyde Park. “There’s interest in local hiring and local contracting opportunities.”

“Jobs for community residents and contracts will be part of that discussion,” said 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell. ”We have to get down to the brass tacks of actually constructing this thing and making sure it fits in well with our community.”

A group of community activists protested outside today’s announcement, demanding that a South Side trauma center be part of the community investment that the university and Obama Foundation is promising.

And the group Friends of the Parks issued a statement saying it was disappointed the library would go in a park but vowed to work with the foundation to make sure parkland gets restored as a result – a far cry from the legal action that it had been threatening in the past. Nesbitt said that the losing bidders, UIC, Hawaii and Columbia, will all have some sort of role in the Obama Foundation.

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