Sweet: Who will steer redevelopment near Obama Center?

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel (left) is accompanied by Robert J. Zimmer, president of University of Chicago at a news conference on Wednesday on the South Side, where the Obama Foundation officially announced Jackson Park as the site of the Obama Presidential Center. | Tae-Gyun Kim/AP

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WASHINGTON — A massive amount of work needs to be done to smartly maximize the economic impact of the Obama Presidential Center to benefit Chicago’s South Side.

Wednesday was the easy day.

It’s not clear yet who or what entity will ultimately be responsible for quarterbacking the South Side redevelopment that President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle want their Center to spur — an important piece of their Chicago legacy.

Barack Obama Foundation Chair Marty Nesbitt hosted a press conference on the south portico of the Museum of Science and Industry overlooking the serene waters of the Columbia Basin in the wake of the Obamas’ decision to have their center built in Jackson Park — not Washington Park.

The day before Obama turns 55, Nesbitt talked about the “iconic location” of Jackson Park for the Obama Center, which planners want to be a mega South Side tourist magnet.

The Obama Center will be close to the DuSable Museum of African American History, the University of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry, already a major Chicago attraction.


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I surmise from talking to several folks close to the decision that the potential to have Lake Michigan views from the upper floors of the Obama Center — which will be a museum, library, event space, Obama Foundation headquarters and more — plus the synergetic tourism potential of a powerhouse South Side museum complex were key factors.

There was an acknowledgement from some folks that the economic kick from the center would likely come quicker if Washington Park, with a western border facing blighted blocks, had prevailed.

Nesbitt pledged that the foundation will support efforts to revive the communities around both parks.

RELATED: Mary Mitchell: Obama Presidential Center could lift entire South Side ‘Iconic location’ tipped scale to Jackson Park for Obama library

Nesbitt reached back more than 100 years into Chicago history to frame the argument that “we actually didn’t think we ended up having to choose between them, that this is actually one community and the distinction between Washington Park and Woodlawn is really an artificial one.”

In 1871, famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, designed a plan for what was called “South Park” — two rectangle land tracts connected by a narrow strip of land.

Nesbitt, who tried out “South Park” for size on Wednesday, will be lucky if folks revive the South Park nomenclature. But for now — as it has been for the lifetime of most Chicagoans, these places are known as Jackson Park and Washington Park and the Midway Plaisance.

So what’s the next step?

It’s the call of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, not the Obama Foundation. In a little-noticed announcement on Friday, Emanuel said City Hall and Aldermen Leslie Hairston (5th); Willie Cochran (20th); Pat Dowell (3rd), and Sophia King (4th) will launch an advisory group.

Members of the group will include all the stakeholders: representatives of the Obama Foundation; South Side community groups; the city; the Chicago Park District; and the University of Chicago.

CKPRINT Because the University of Chicago won the “bid,” it’s not clear what actual skin it has in the game. There is no written agreement that obligates the U. of C. to do anything at this point.

CKPRINT The Obama Foundation, taking park district land for the center, still has to make good on the “park positive” pledge made in order to get the land transferred to the city.

City Hall’s honcho overseeing Obama Center matters is Andrea Zopp, the deputy mayor and chief development officer who signed on to the Emanuel administration last May after she lost a Democratic primary Senate bid in March.

“The first step is to figure out what type of organization it will be,” she told me when we talked on Wednesday.

Zopp said she envisions, eventually, a nonprofit organization being created to leverage the economic spinoffs of the Obama Center. She said she will be looking for funding to bankroll this advisory group — perhaps from local foundations — with nothing firm at this point.

“The initial point will be looking for the consultants to help us think through the organization.”

And make sure someone is responsible for getting this done right.

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