Sweet: Nesbitt aims to include S. Side community in Obama Center plans

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Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the Barack Obama Foundation, outlines an ambitious drive to include the South Side community in the planning process for the Obama Presidential Center at the City Club of Chicago on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015 in Chicago. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times via AP

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A decision on whether the Obama Presidential Center will be in Washington Park or Jackson Park and the selection of an architect is taking longer than originally expected, Obama Foundation chairman Martin Nesbitt said Tuesday as he outlined an ambitious drive to include the South Side community in the planning process.

Nesbitt delivered his first major public comments on the museum, library and foundation home since President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle picked the South Side for their project last May. He focused much of his City Club of Chicago speech on local concerns about jobs and how the project will seek to co-exist with the historic parks, both designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

While providing the update, Nesbitt also turned to the killing of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee, the latest victim of gang violence that has plagued the city. His funeral was taking place almost at the same time Nesbitt was speaking.

The goal of the Obama Center is to draw visitors from around the world, to become as much as a tourist destination as Wrigley Field or Grant Park, Nesbitt said.

But the world is watching Chicago and “we can’t invite the world to the South Side without demonstrating that we can fix our own problems. . . . We are about to invite the world into our living room, so we need to get our house in order,” Nesbitt said.

“We need the city and state to work with us in any way they can. We need local businesses to take a risk on the potential of the South Side. Most importantly, we need local residents to embrace this opportunity to create a better future for our children,” he said.

The foundation and White House staffers have been consulting with the Obamas to chart how their legacy will be portrayed in the Obama Center and the projects they will want to embrace once they leave the White House in January 2017. Obama has already said that he will be working on myriad interrelated issues dealing with violence, race and criminal justice after he leaves office. He also has noted in several speeches the violence that plagues his adopted home town.

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In providing the update, Nesbitt recast a timeline for threshold decisions on the architect and whether to site the complex in Washington Park or Jackson Park. The architecture competition is ongoing as the foundation sifts through about 140 bids.

When the South Side was picked last May, Nesbitt said the specific park would be chosen in six to nine months. With 140 entrants announced last September, the foundation started to review whether its self-imposed early 2016 deadline for the president and first lady to pick an architect was realistic.

On Tuesday, Nesbitt targeted the first half of next year for the two related decisions because the architect will have enormous impact in the site selection.

While the University of Chicago reached out to the community in developing its winning bid, the school’s participation is somewhat dormant at this stage. Nesbitt announced that by the beginning of next year, the foundation will start its own extensive community outreach.

Toward that end, in the coming weeks the foundation will announce who has been hired to lead the community engagement drive. That person will become a very public face of the massive development.

“In the coming months,” Nesbitt said, “we will be talking to and collaborating with people who live here, so their perspectives and ideas are fully considered during the process.”

The foundation and the Obamas prevailed in their decision to build in an Olmsted park, and objections from Friends of the Parks ended up fading.

Citing Olmsted’s famous line about “the genius of a place,” Nesbitt said: “We are going to be extremely mindful of our relationship with the Olmsted parks and our impact on the surrounding environment.”

Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet

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