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‘Iconic location’ tipped scale to Jackson Park for Obama library

Marty Nesbitt, Chair of the Obama Foundation speaks about the future of the Obama Presidential Center

Marty Nesbitt, chair of the Obama Foundation, talks about plans for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. | Getty Images

The choice between Jackson Park and Washington Park for the planned presidential library was a tough one, but in the end, the former’s “iconic location” and historical significance made the difference, the top Obama Foundation official said Wednesday.

Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the Obama Foundation, speaking to reporters at the Museum of Science and Industry, went to great lengths to say that the Obama library, museum and foundation offices, with a planned opening in 2021, would benefit far more than just the Woodlawn community.

“Jackson Park, with its aesthetics, its iconic location, the historical relevance of the world’s fair — we just think it will attract visitors on a national level, a global level and bring significant benefits to both communities,” Nesbitt said.

Nesbitt described the separation between Jackson Park and Washington Park as an “artificial one.”

“We actually didn’t think we ended up having to choose between them. This is actually one community,” he said.

Jackson Park on Chicago's South Side

Officials say the Obama library, with a planned opening in 2021, would benefit far more than just the Woodlawn community. | AP file photo

Jackson Park is along Chicago’s lakefront and is rich in history. It was home to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and the tranquil lagoons and other features designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted for the event remain. The park also is home to the fair’s former Palace of Fine Arts Building, which now houses the Museum of Science and Industry.

Obama, who started out as a community organizer on Chicago’s far South Side, said in a written statement Friday that the library will spur development. Obama said he and first lady Michelle Obama “can’t wait to forge new ways to give back to the people of Chicago who have given us so much.”

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But some urban policy planners feel those ambitions would have had more room to grow in Washington Park, where the prevalence of vacant lots offer ready-made space for spinoff development ranging from souvenir stands to restaurants to hotels.

“I’m just so unhappy,” said Jacky Grimshaw, vice president for policy at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, an urban development and economic advocacy organization.

Grimshaw, a longtime resident of the area who grew up playing in Washington Park, said building the library there could have reversed population decline and created more economic opportunity.

“Here is a grand opportunity that is being missed,” she said.

Some Washington Park community leaders are quietly pleased the library will be close but not too close.

The area was once home to one of the highest concentrations of public housing in the country before those high-rise projects were torn down about a decade ago. Their residents were able to remain in the neighborhood thanks to federal housing benefits for low-income people.

Activists were concerned the library might have driven a rapid gentrification that would have raised housing costs and forced longtime residents out.

A dismayed Friends of the Parks announced Wednesday it does not plan to sue over the chosen site of the Obama Presidential Center on existing parkland as it did with the proposed sites for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

The advocacy group that aims to preserve and protect Chicago’s parks and beaches issued a statement Wednesday that it will not sue because, unlike the proposed sites for the Lucas Museum, the Obama Center’s chosen site in Jackson Park is not public trust land.

“Friends of the Parks’ analysis suggests that there is no realistic legal remedy at this time to protect this public open space from this development,” executive director Juanita Irizarry said.

Friends of the Parks said it welcomes the Obama Center to Chicago’s South Side but is disappointed “at the use of existing parkland in Jackson Park rather than abundant vacant land nearby.”

The group urged the Obama Foundation to actively minimize the center’s impact on the parkland. It requested that the center’s construction fit with the vision of Olmsted, the architect who helped design Jackson Park, and conduct a study, led by outside and independent experts, to assess potential adverse environmental impacts of the center’s construction.

“The design of the Obama Library should maximize the use of available vacant land and underground space, and be truly ‘park positive’ by adding parkland to the surrounding community,” Irizarry said. “Furthermore, any design should upgrade the park’s facilities and preserve existing recreational uses by the public.”

Friends of the Parks recently concluded a two-year saga in which it sued the city of Chicago over proposals to build the Lucas Museum at a lakefront location on the Museum Campus. It resulted in Lucas pulling the plug on the $743 million private investment and moving the project to California.

Contributing: The Associated Press