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Obama Foundation under pressure from lawsuit, releases secret U. of C. bid

Barack Obama Foundation chairman Martin Nesbitt speaks during a news conference announcing the future of the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. file photo

WASHINGTON – Under pressure from a federal lawsuit, the Obama Foundation released on Friday the secret bids for the Obama Presidential Center, from the University of Chicago and three other schools.

The bids were made public in the wake of the Obama Foundation and the U. of C. being subpoenaed on Sept. 28 for the documents as part of the pending court case, which seeks to prevent construction of the center in Jackson Park.

A hearing is set for 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday in Chicago before U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey.

The U. of C. pitch for the Obama Center to be on Chicago’s South Side beat out bids from Columbia, the U. of Hawaii and the U. of Illinois at Chicago. The U. of C. documents released included a first round bid filed on June 16, 2014 and the final proposal, submitted on Dec. 11, 2014.

Former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle picked Jackson Park for their center in July, 2016, a controversial location because it involved landmarked public park land.

The U. of C. bid included a broader agenda for historic Jackson Park, a proposal for a sweeping redo  far beyond the acres needed for the Obama Center campus in order to improve, the bid said, the connecting green space for the already existing museums in near proximity, known as the “Museum Campus South.”

That included the combining of the golf courses at South Shore and Jackson Parks into a single “world class facility” and the closing of Cornell Drive and other streets in the park.

“The OPL will be the anchor of a new master plan that revitalizes Jackson Park, assists with the development of the urban periphery of the park, and helps spur the development of the 63rd Street corridor. The enrichment of the park, its edges and its spine will trigger a residential, commercial, and cultural revitalization of the extended community,” a bid document said.

The “L” refers to the word library. When the bids were filed, the main components of the Obama Center were a museum and an official federal presidential library run by the National Archives and Records Administration. However, Obama decided in 2016 not to have a presidential library at his center, freeing him from NARA’s extensive design and financial requirements.

When the golf course proposal surfaced,  foundation executives and spokesmen at the time denied knowledge about the project, especially as it was becoming controversial.

The U. of C. hired a golf course designer as a consultant and said in the bid,  “In conjunction with the development of the Obama Presidential Library in Woodlawn, there is the opportunity to renovate and extend the Jackson Park course and even combine it with the 9-hole course at South Shore to create a tournament-grade, 27-hole facility.”

Redacted from the bid, at the request of the U. of C., according to a foundation spokesman, is the capital commitment from trustees of the university.

The university hired three star architects to offer concept drawings for each of the three sites in the original bid: Charles Renfro, Jackson Park; David Adjaye, Washington Park; and Jeanne Gang, the South Shore Cultural Center.

Proposed Obama presidential center near South Shore Cultural Center

Studio Gang architects came up with this concept for an Obama presidential center near the South Shore Cultural Center. | Studio Gang

According to the bid, the school also hired community engagement and public affairs specialists to rally public support, among them: Desiree Tate & Associates; Bill Strong Communications; and ASGK Public Strategies.

As the Obama Center project evolved, the role of the U. of C. has diminished.

Jeremey Manier, the assistant vice president for communications at the U. of C. said in an email, “In its initial request for qualifications, the Obama Foundation indicated that it would consider the proposals on a confidential basis, for use in its selection of a host city. However, in light of recent developments, the proposals will now be available in the public domain, which the University supports.”

Whether the Obama Center should have been granted permission to use the Chicago Park District land is among the issues in a federal lawsuit filed last May by Protect Our Parks, Inc. and three parks activists.

The closely guarded bids of the four finalists were made public by the foundation just ahead of releasing the information to the plaintiffs.

Adjaye Associates plan for Obama Presidential Center in Washington Park

Adjaye Associates produced this plan for an Obama Presidential Center in Washington Park. | Adjaye Associates

Herb Caplan, the president of Protect Our Parks, said in an email: “We are pleased that the discovery subpoenas we served on the Obama Foundation and UChicago have caused them to finally release this document long kept secret, and we expect it will lead to additional evidence that the entire Obama Center planning has been ill conceived and in arrogant disregard of the controlling Illinois law which bars such construction in Jackson Park.”

The Chicago City Council will vote in the coming weeks on the deal to let the Obama Foundation control 19.3 acres in Jackson Park for 99 years with a payment of $10.

The Obama Center project is also the subject of an ongoing federal review, triggered because Jackson Park, designed by famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

A spokesman for the Obama Foundation said in a statement: “Given the request from Protect our Parks for the University of Chicago’s proposal, we thought it was appropriate to make each of the four proposals from 2014 public today.”

Erin J. Adams, Co-Founder, Southside Neighbors for Hope — an organization supporting the Jackson Park location — said in a statement: “The release of these bids should serve to remind us how competitive the process was for attracting the center to a given location. Let’s just pause for a second to imagine that the center went to Hawaii, or Columbia in New York City. Where would we be now?”

Brenda Nelms, a co-founder of Jackson Park Watch, a critic of locating the center in Jackson Park, said in a statement: “The revelation that the University of Chicago’s particular interests have driven the plans for the OPC (as well as for the proposed golf course merger) is ample cause for the City Council to delay consideration of the new ordinance scheduled for a vote on Oct. 31 so that the OPC proposal can be fully reviewed with community input.”

Diller Scofidio and Renfro's proposal for an Obama presidential library in Jackson Park is quite different from what is now planned. | Diller Scofidio and Renfro's Obama presidential library plan in Jackson Park

Diller Scofidio and Renfro’s proposal for an Obama presidential library in Jackson Park is quite different from what is now planned. | Diller Scofidio and Renfro

Obama Presidential Center rendering. | Obama Foundation

A rendering of the current design of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. | Obama Foundation