Artist renderings of the view of Stony Island Avenue from a potential site for the Obama Presidential Center at Jackson Park (left) and of the view of Garfield Boulevard from a potential site for the center at Washington Park. (Renderings courtesy Skidmore, Owings & Merrill)

Bringing it home

The South Side of Chicago is selected as the future home of the Obama Presidential Center.

“The chance of a lifetime.” That’s how 96-year-old historian Timuel Black, AM’54, described the news that Barack Obama’s presidential library would be built on the South Side of Chicago. In an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, Black, a lifelong South Sider, wrote that as he stood near the podium when the library’s location was announced, “I felt that a long journey was returning to its source.”

On May 12 the Barack Obama Foundation announced Chicago’s South Side as the future home of the Barack Obama Presidential Center, which will include the presidential library, a museum, and office and activity space for the Obama Foundation.

The center will be located at one of two possible sites: in Jackson Park or in the Washington Park area. The final choice will be made in the coming months, when the foundation enters into an agreement with the city to develop the site.

In choosing the South Side, the Barack Obama Foundation cited several factors: the opportunity to make a significant economic impact, community support for the project, the area’s rich history and connection with the Obamas, its proximity to the University, and easy access to transportation.

“With a library and a foundation on the South Side of Chicago, not only will we be able to encourage and effect change locally, but what we can also do is to attract the world to Chicago,” President Obama said in a video message announcing the decision. First Lady Michelle Obama, who grew up on the South Side, said, “I’m thrilled to be able to put this resource in the heart of the neighborhood that means the world to me.”

The University of Chicago will collaborate with the Barack Obama Foundation in establishing the Presidential Center and will offer support for the center’s efforts in community engagement, including planning, development, and individual and institutional collaborations. University president Robert J. Zimmer said, “We are deeply appreciative that President Obama, Mrs. Obama, and the Barack Obama Foundation selected Chicago’s South Side as the home for the Obama Presidential Center, a decision that creates major opportunities for the South Side and the city of Chicago. This would not be possible without the support of groups and individuals across the city and state, especially the leadership and commitment of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. We believe opening the Presidential Center will mark a watershed moment for the South Side and the city, serving as a catalyst for economic and cultural opportunities as well as community programming.”

Noting Chicago’s “deep connection” to the Obamas, Emanuel said, “We are thrilled that they have decided to bring their legacy home.” Derek Douglas, vice president for civic engagement at the University, added, “This is the beginning of a long-term commitment.”

Thousands of community members and groups contributed to the selection process, through individual meetings with University staff and city planners and by attending public hearings about potential sites. The Chicago City Council voted unanimously in March to make parkland available.

The foundation and Presidential Center will be independent from the University of Chicago. The Obama Foundation will be responsible for all aspects of the building, construction, design, and planning processes for the Obama Presidential Center. The National Archives and Records Administration and the Barack Obama Foundation will operate the future museum and library portion of the Presidential Center as a public-private partnership. The Obama Foundation will raise all of the funds needed for construction of the project; neither federal funds nor University funds will be used in the construction of the facilities.

The project has the potential to be an “economic boon” for surrounding neighborhoods and the city, according to a 2014 study by Anderson Economic Group. That report, commissioned by the University, estimated that the center would account for about 3,300 construction jobs and would spur the creation of 1,900 permanent new jobs in retail, dining, and other businesses, with $220 million in annual impact for Chicago.

“This will be a truly global institution, but it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the South Side and our city,” said Susan Sher, senior adviser to President Zimmer. “We are inviting our community to continue developing the ideas and energy that will make this Presidential Center unique.”

Dozens of nonprofit organizations have worked with the University on ideas for collaborating with the Obama Foundation. The University has shared those ideas with the foundation and will help integrate the presidential library into the cultural and educational fabric of the South Side through initiatives such as Museum Campus South, a collection of institutions that includes the DuSable Museum of African American History and the Museum of Science and Industry near the University, and five others on campus: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, the Oriental Institute, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, the Renaissance Society, and the Smart Museum of Art.

The Obama Foundation announced plans to open offices on the South Side by the end of the year. In the coming months the foundation will begin sketching out plans for the center. In line with President Obama’s priorities, the foundation will place a strong emphasis on community partnerships and opportunities for economic development. The University of Chicago was one of four finalists that sought the Presidential Center, and the Obama Foundation indicated that it will continue to collaborate with the other three finalist universities—Columbia University in New York, the University of Hawaii, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. The foundation said it will also work to identify additional academic institutions, thought leaders, community partners, and other organizations that can help advance its mission.

In his Tribune op-ed, Black reflected on his hopes that the center would lead to a blossoming on the South Side—“social, economic, racial, and religious.” When the center opens in several years, he wrote, “it will carry on for generations the hopes that have shaped my life and our community.”

He added: “I’m optimistic that I’ll be there to see it.”