For people who don’t live in the South Side neighborhood of Washington Park, there is hardly a reason to take the CTA’s Green Line to the Garfield station.
Though barely a mile from the stately University of Chicago campus, the desolate block of East Garfield Boulevard between Martin Luther King Drive and Prairie Avenue has little to offer, mostly one shuttered storefront after another and remnants of broken signage from businesses that once beckoned customers.
But it’s possible that the landscape could change. Washington Park residents are pinning their hopes on President Barack Obama — that he will select the U. of C. to host his presidential library and that the university will build it on the swath of vacant, city-owned land adjacent to the “L.”
While the site for the library will not be announced until early 2015, Chicago is considered by some observers to be the front-runner, partly because of the president and first lady Michelle Obama’s strong personal and political ties to the city. Other bids are expected from Honolulu and New York.
Across Chicago, other neighborhoods also are wagering their dreams of a cultural and economic renaissance on the Obama library. At least five community groups, universities or developers from the Near West Side to the Far South Side are preparing bids for the library, hoping to become the beneficiary of the boon that is expected to follow.
“Placing the library in the middle of an urban community would bring opportunity, economic development and inspiration,” said Carol Adams, executive director of the DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park. “Kids could just be passing by and stop in. They wouldn’t have to wait on school trips, with something as fantastic as a presidential library just down the street or around the corner from where they live.”
None of the 13 presidential libraries and museums administered by the National Archives and Records Administration has been built in a low-income, inner-city neighborhood. So the challenge of using a presidential library as an economic engine to overhaul a neighborhood that suffers from long-term disinvestment is untested, according to library experts.
“When you look at a library, you have to look at the surrounding vicinity. It is unusual to try to rehabilitate part of an urban area by resurrecting a presidential library. There could be a risk of crime, poverty or reputation, and all of it has to be considered,” said Curt Smith, a senior lecturer at the University of Rochester and author of the book “Windows on the White House: The Story of Presidential Libraries.”
“It’s a noble thought to say, ‘We’re going to use the presidential library as a vehicle to rehabilitate an area.’ But in doing that, you have to make sure you don’t damage the library as a whole and end up not helping anyone,” he said.
In Bronzeville, just south of McCormick Place, residents want the library built on the site of the former Michael Reese Hospital, a 48-acre property owned by the city. Chicago developer Dan McCaffery wants the library to anchor his $4 billion retail and residential development planned on the old U.S. Steel South Works site in southeast Chicago. The University of Illinois at Chicago is looking at six sites on the Near West Side to offer for the library. Chicago State University has identified two potential sites on its South Side campus, and a third site in the Pullman Historic District, which is being proposed as a national park.
With so many entities preparing to vie for the library, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has backed off his earlier goal of formulating a unified bid from Chicago. Instead, according to a City Hall source, the city is prepared to support any organization that makes a bid.
The University of Chicago has brought together a coalition of South Side residents, including Adams, to serve as advisers for its library proposal. In addition to Washington Park, there is land farther south in Woodlawn and South Shore as well as on the Near South Side near Roosevelt Road that could accommodate a library.
University officials have not indicated a preference for a specific site but have said that if they are awarded the project, they prefer to build it “in the heart of the South Side,” near their Hyde Park campus. The university will not choose a specific site but will leave that up to Obama and the first lady.
“Our view is that we very much want the Obama library on the mid-South Side. In any event, Hyde Park is landlocked, so it would have to be somewhere in the surrounding area,” said Susan Sher, senior adviser to U. of C. President Robert Zimmer and coordinator of its library effort. “We won’t offer a site in our proposal. If we are more open to possibilities, it could increase our chances. It shows we’re flexible.”
Sher confirmed that the city-owned property in Washington Park is among several potential sites the university has looked at on the South Side. The university owns an adjacent lot that currently holds a gas station as well as a strip of mostly vacant 1920s-era storefronts on East Garfield. Last year the university opened the Arts Incubator — studio space for artists-in-residence — in one of the newly rehabbed storefronts.
The University of Illinois at Chicago also would like to extend the library’s benefits beyond its campus to surrounding communities on the Near West Side. The six locations the university is looking at are either on campus or in residential areas north of Roosevelt Road between Halsted Street and Damen Avenue, officials said. All of the properties are owned by the university, and the list will be narrowed to two by June, they said.
“All of our campuses are in the neighborhoods, and we have the support of the surrounding communities,” said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and political scientist at UIC who serves on the university’s library proposal committee. “This would be a major addition to the West Side of Chicago and offer great educational and civic opportunities for the community. One of the hallmarks would be opening it up to the adjacent community. Obviously, everyone who is making a bid thinks they have an idea about how to do that.”
Now that the Lake Shore Drive southern extension is complete, McCaffery is pitching the largest undeveloped parcel in Chicago — a 600-acre site between 79th and 87th streets — as the library’s home. The developer, who has entered into a joint venture with U.S. Steel to build a $4 billion residential and business community called Chicago Lakeside, has yet to break ground on a single structure.
The library would be built at the north end of the property overlooking the lake. The remote location — more than 15 miles from downtown — and the lack of public transportation access should not eliminate the site from consideration, McCaffery said.
“Accessibility is going to be key. But it’s not accessibility from Winnetka. It’s accessibility from Nairobi, from Dublin, from Moscow,” said McCaffery. “So 99.9 percent of the accessibility is answered by the fact that we have one of the finest airports.”
Marshall Brown, an assistant professor of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said location is important because presidential libraries have only a limited ability to attract large numbers of people on their own.
Brown, who led graduate students in a semester-long project to evaluate potential spots for the library in Chicago and to design their own ambitious visions for the campus, cited President John F. Kennedy’s library, which sits on a peninsula jutting into a bay in Boston, as an example.
“The (Kennedy) library, which has been sitting on Columbia Point in Boston since the 1980s, has attracted very little energy,” Brown said. “There’s a limit to how remote these facilities can be before they’re actually not that effective at attracting large numbers of people or economic development.”
Paula Robinson, president of the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Commission, said a presidential library on the Michael Reese Hospital site would be a big boost to the neighborhood’s efforts to make Bronzeville an international African-American heritage tourist destination.
City planners have looked at the Michael Reese site for other possible uses, including for a casino and convention hotels. If Chicago had won its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics, the Olympic Village would have been built on the site, which is south of downtown and close to the lake. Consultants to the city have recommended that a Metra station be moved there to aid redevelopment.
With so many cultural assets already in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood — from blues musician Muddy Waters’ home to Pilgrim Baptist Church, designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan — the library would be a perfect fit and have a trickle-down effect on existing businesses, Robinson said.
“If there’s a library on 31st Street, everybody is going to want a good place to eat or buy souvenirs. We can say, ‘Check out Muddy Waters Drive a few blocks away. There’s great stuff there.’ That’s economic development.”
Indeed, presidential libraries have driven revitalization before. The Clinton library in Little Rock, Ark., sparked more than $2 billion in development along the downtown riverfront since the library was announced in 1994. More than half of it came before the library opened in 2005.
“It has transformed downtown Little Rock and had a positive impact on housing,” said James “Skip” Rutherford, a friend of Bill Clinton’s who served as the local planning coordinator and was a member of the library foundation. “It changed the scope of downtown, which continues to expand and grow, and it became Arkansas’ gateway to the world in terms of access to tourism that had been needed in the state for a long time.”
Choosing the right spot wasn’t easy. Once Clinton selected Little Rock, community groups, developers and universities came up with 40 potential sites, which a committee of city officials narrowed to five finalists. Unlike the Barack Obama Foundation, Clinton’s foundation did not require formal bids.
“What we did was allow everybody who thought they had a good idea for a site to present it and have it considered,” said Rutherford, now dean of the University of Arkansas School of Public Service, which is part of the Clinton Presidential Center. “There were people saying they wanted it as an economic engine in residential neighborhoods. President Clinton wanted his library to be not only to be an economic engine but to stimulate growth in tourism and research, more than just a single-source destination stuck out in the middle of a field someplace.”
Rutherford was among those who visited each site, looking at access, parking, cost of rehabbing the land, and proximity to hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions. In the end, Clinton selected the old warehouse district downtown on the banks of the Arkansas River.
“The one chosen had an economic impact on the entire city,” Rutherford said.
The area known as the River Market District averages more than 300,000 visitors a year, according to Sharon Priest, executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership. One reason, she said, is that there are other attractions, such as museums and entertainment venues, also in the area.
Revitalizing a downtown area used by the entire city is very different from turning around a neighborhood that has limited scope, real estate experts said. A presidential library cannot be a panacea for a neighborhood that has experienced decades of neglect.
Over the past half-century, Washington Park has experienced a 79 percent decrease in population, dwindling to just over 11,000 residents. Some of the population decline can be attributed to the 2007 demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes, one of the largest concentrations of public housing in the country.
A third of the property in Washington Park is vacant and the neighborhood has the city’s highest commercial vacancy rate at 26 percent, according to a 2012 assessment commissioned by the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The Green Line station has parking, and the area is surrounded by vacant lots and abandoned homes that could be acquired if more land is needed for the library. Burke Elementary School sits nearby at King Drive at 54th Street. The few restaurants in the immediate area are mostly fast food. On a recent afternoon, the only shopping taking place was in an adjacent parking lot, where vendors sold blankets, clothes and household items from the back of a truck.
The sprawling Washington Park, part of the Chicago Park District, is on the other side of King Drive. Chicago’s unrealized plans for the Olympics envisioned an 80,000-seat stadium there.
“Can a library suddenly change a place? The answer is no. But nothing else can either,” said Robert Weissbourd, a former ShoreBank executive who is an expert on urban development. “Can a library of this scope in conjunction with other things that it both enables and that naturally flow from it change a neighborhood? The answer is yes.”
The library would have a positive effect on the path of any neighborhood it is placed in, Weissbourd said. But its economic impact will depend on what other activities it leverages. And that requires a bigger plan.
The market won’t build on its own in a neighborhood far away from downtown, he said. Retailers, developers and infrastructure won’t automatically come to Washington Park like they would to a neighborhood like Bronzeville, which is closer to downtown and the vibrant lakefront.
“If you put it in … Washington Park, you will have a bigger upside, but you have to do more,” Weissbourd said. “You have a bigger chance for it to be a catalyst for market activity and a bigger turnaround, but you have to make sure you’re putting in the infrastructure for that to occur.”
Ultimately, when it comes to determining the kind of economic engine the library will be, the president will be the driving force, Rutherford said.
“Nobody is going to put the Obama library in a place the president didn’t want it to go,” he said. “It didn’t happen with President (George W.) Bush, Ronald Reagan or any of them.”