Barack Obama Presidential Library offers historic opportunity for South Side parks

Jeremy Manier
Associate Vice President for CommunicationsUniversity Communications

The University of Chicago is providing additional information on two proposed sites for the Barack Obama Presidential Library in advance of Chicago Park District hearings on the use of parkland for the library project.

“Locating the Barack Obama Presidential Library on Chicago’s South Side offers a rare chance to reinvigorate the economy of nearby communities and make improvements for the area’s infrastructure and parks,” said Susan Sher, senior adviser to University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer. “We look forward to hearing further community input regarding the proposed sites in Washington Park or Woodlawn, where the presidential library will create a global destination for learning and engagement.”

The collaborative process that led to selection of these sites included meetings with dozens of local organizations, elected officials, city agency representatives, and preliminary conversations with the Barack Obama Foundation. Out of about 20 potential sites, the University’s collaborators and the foundation indicated that locations including South Side parkland offered the best chance to fulfill important goals for the presidential library. The sites would not displace local residents, and would be highly accessible for Chicagoans and visitors from all over the world. The project sought communities that could get transformative benefits from the library as an economic engine.

Many community residents said using parkland for the project offers a chance to catalyze new investments for underutilized South Side parks. The improvements include enhanced access for pedestrians and cyclists, renovation or replacement of aging facilities, and other attractions such as urban farms.

“We incorporated many of these ideas in our proposal to the foundation,” Sher said. “The presidential library would be a new jewel for the South Side park system, alongside public cultural institutions such as the Museum of Science and Industry and the DuSable Museum of African American History. This would benefit all Chicago residents and further improve the South Side’s status as a destination for Chicagoans and out-of-town visitors.”

The University recommends that the final plan for the library should be park-positive—in other words, the community should gain access to more usable parkland from this process than the presidential library would occupy. The Washington Park location would permit the development of additional greenspace along Garfield Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and the potential for other open space projects in the neighborhood near the park. Similar opportunities for new greenspace exist along 63rd Street and sites near the Woodlawn location.

Locating the presidential library in either Washington Park or Woodlawn would drive major investment on the South Side, creating new businesses and resources for residents and visitors. A study by Anderson Economic Group, commissioned by the University of Chicago, found that the library would be an “economic boon” for the area. The library’s estimated annual impact would be at least $220 million, including about 1,900 permanent jobs and 3,280 construction jobs. The report estimated that the library would attract about 800,000 visitors annually and that these visitors would spend $31 million annually in the neighborhood near the site, supporting 41 new restaurants and retail outlets. The impact will extend beyond the neighborhood surrounding the library, enhancing the entire mid-South Side through new resources, deeper transit and pedestrian connections, and area-wide programming for residents.

The proposed sites would consist mostly of open space. The University estimates that 10 acres or less would be devoted to buildings at each location. In all, the sites would comprise about 22 acres in Washington Park and 21 acres in Jackson Park, with 11 additional acres owned by the University of Chicago and city entities near the Washington Park site. This would create a relatively small footprint for a presidential library. America's last three presidential libraries have an average of 50 acres each.

Washington Park

One potential site is on the western edge of Washington Park. The portion of the site in parkland would be bordered by Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the west, Ellsworth Drive on the east, Garfield Boulevard on the south, and 51st Street on the north. In addition to this section of the park, the proposed site would encompass a block of land across MLK Drive currently owned by the University of Chicago, the city of Chicago and the Chicago Transit Authority.

The Washington Park site represents an outstanding opportunity to spur economic development. Real estate in the Washington Park neighborhood provides abundant opportunities for new commercial, retail, residential, and hospitality facilities without displacing existing residents. There could be additional development on MLK Drive and abundant opportunity for residential development throughout the neighborhood.

Jackson Park/Woodlawn

The other potential site is located in Jackson Park along Stony Island Avenue, part of the Woodlawn neighborhood. The site would be bordered by Stony Island Avenue on the west, Cornell Avenue on the east, 60th Street on the north, and 63rd Street on the South.

The Woodlawn neighborhood also has the potential for an economic boom. The presidential library could catalyze this development and support a range of opportunities, including commercial investment and new educational facilities along Stony Island Avenue and 63rd Street. 

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