South Works developer vying for Obama library

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It could almost be a lonely spot on the far Michigan shore, with the blue-gray lake and the brown grass, scattered copses, bare trees swaying in the steady breeze. The dunes maybe.

But north, there’s the skyline of Chicago, looming like Oz, and west, a massive wall, 30 feet tall and 2,000 feet long, which held ore off-loaded from barges when this was U.S. Steel’s South Works. Once the vibrant heart of Midwest manufacturing, it is now, and for the past 20 years, both a white elephant and a tantalizing possibility.

Nearly 600 acres — almost the size of New York’s Central Park — of prime lakefront, where East 86th Street approaches Lake Michigan. Or remote lakefront, depending on your view. For developer Dan McCaffery, this is where Chicago’s newest neighborhood is about to spring into being, anchored by Barack Obama’s presidential library.

“It’s so beautiful,” said McCaffery, who has been working with U.S. Steel for the past decade getting the property ready for development — the South Lake Shore Drive extension that opened in October was a major step.

The Obama library is a greased pig that many are scrambling for: the University of Chicago, in the lead, but also the University of Illinois at Chicago and, trailing behind, Chicago State. A committee of the Illinois House voted Thursday to put $100 million on the table to try to make sure the library doesn’t go to Hawaii, Obama’s home state.

One benefit of the South Works site: There is nothing there. A velodrome — a banked bike track — somewhat improbably, and the wall, which would have to be blown up. That’s about it. The drawback: It isn’t on the city radar. Not yet.

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