Rejecting a rough-edged urban site for what could be a showcase near the lakefront, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have selected Chicago's historic Jackson Park as the site of his presidential library, sources said Wednesday.
The choice, which leaked out ahead of a formal announcement expected next week, elated some South Side residents but disappointed advocates of the other finalist site, Washington Park, whose surrounding neighborhood is pockmarked by vacant lots.
Capping more than a year of competition between the two South Side sites, the selection will put the library within blocks of the popular Museum of Science and Industry and in a park that drew millions of visitors from around the world during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.
Together, the two attractions might form a "Museum Campus South" that could rival the downtown Museum Campus. The center would be a short hop from either Lake Shore Drive or two Metra train stations, strong pulls for visitors.
For Washington Park residents, however, the news marked the second loss of a major project that promised an economic renaissance. The park was the centerpiece of the city's failed bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Martin Nesbitt, chairman of the Obama Foundation, the nonprofit charged with building the presidential center, declined to confirm or deny the Jackson Park selection. But the news was saluted in an official statement from U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, a Democrat from south suburban Matteson whose district includes Jackson Park.
"I think it's a benefit to the South Side of Chicago, period," Kelly said in an interview. "No matter which park it's in, it's good for the South Side and uplifting to have a presidential library there."
Yet the optimistic sentiments were tempered by concerns that the center will accelerate gentrification in neighborhoods around Jackson Park.
"Residents need to buckle down and figure out how to stay here," said Mattie Butler, executive director of the Woodlawn East Community and Neighbors group.
Park preservationists also expressed disappointment about the choice because it means the library will have a bigger footprint in Jackson Park. Like Washington Park and the Midway Plaisance, the strip of green that connects the two finalist sites, Jackson Park was designed by the great 19th-century landscape designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
"We still don't think it should be in a park," said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks. But the group does not plan to challenge the center in court, as it did the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, eventually prompting "Star Wars" creator George Lucas to pull the project from Chicago.
Near the eastern edge of the University of Chicago campus, the 543-acre Jackson Park is a South Side oasis, with a wooded island in a picturesque lagoon, lush woods and a golf course.
Jackson Park's western edge along Stony Island Avenue connects with Woodlawn, an impoverished African-American neighborhood that is beginning to gentrify. And the Hyde Park neighborhood, just north of Woodlawn and surrounding the university, already is booming.
Those attributes may have given Jackson Park a leg up on Washington Park.
The hurdles facing the center would have been higher in that neighborhood, where one-third of the land is vacant. Decades ago, the Washington Park area was central to Chicago's Black Belt, a robust but segregated cluster of neighborhoods that drew African-Americans from the South during the Great Migration. During the past half-century the population has plummeted, and nearly half of the remaining residents live in poverty in an area plagued by crime.
"I am very, very, very, very disappointed" by the selection of Jackson Park, said Jacky Grimshaw, vice president for policy at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which helps low- and moderate-income families. Washington Park would have benefited much more from the economic boost the library is expected to deliver, she said.
Formally known as the Obama Presidential Center, estimated to cost at least $500 million, the project will include a library housing the presidential archives, a museum devoted to Obama's eight-year tenure and the headquarters of the Obama Foundation, the organization that will fund the design, construction and planning of the center.
The building will be Chicago's first presidential library and one of the highest-profile architectural projects in the city's pipeline. In contrast to most presidential libraries, it will be built alongside a poor and predominantly African-American neighborhood far from a city center.
After the news leaked Wednesday, community groups gathered to begin discussing how to negotiate jobs and other benefits for South Side residents. About 100 people turned out to a meeting called by the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP).
"We want to get input from … the people [the library] is gonna affect the most so that we can be the biggest beneficiaries of this project," said Haroon Garel, housing organizer for STOP.
Jitu Brown, a resident of nearby Bronzeville, said Woodlawn residents need to be protected from displacement. Too often, large developments or initiatives push out neighbors, as if "development is code for … economic cleansing," he said.
Others expressed optimism about the project's impact.
At the Robust Coffee Lounge, a few blocks from Jackson Park, barista Jamela Elayyan said: "This is probably going to be huge" for business. The library will bring down the level of crime in the community, she predicted, and families will feel safer living there.
Renowned architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien were chosen in June to lead the design of the library, aided by Chicago-based Interactive Design Architects.
Williams and Tsien designed the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, which drew praise when it opened in 2012. It was unclear Wednesday whether the architects had helped select the site, as the foundation said they would. A spokeswoman for them declined to comment.
As entrenched poverty on Chicago's West and South Side shows, efforts to revitalize poor African-American neighborhoods often end in failure. While Woodlawn has stronger prospects than Washington Park, the Obamas still face an enormous challenge as they seek to position the center as a catalyst for revitalization.
In Woodlawn, which has seen decades of unfulfilled promises for redevelopment, activists are putting the finishing touches on an extensive plan they hope will bring affordable housing, public transit improvements, retail development and a manufacturing facility to the community.
The effort is led by the Arthur M. Brazier Foundation, named for the late pastor of the Apostolic Church of God, a longtime anchor for the Woodlawn neighborhood.
Nearly one-third of the vacant land available for redevelopment in Woodlawn is clustered near 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue, where the church and the nonprofit Woodlawn Community Development Corp. are the biggest landowners.
The University of Chicago, which put forward Washington and Jackson parks in its bid to bring the library to the South Side, commissioned a study that found the project could generate $31 million in food and other retail development in the adjacent neighborhood. That could translate into as many as 30 restaurants, 11 stores and a hotel, the report found.
The city has promised a variety of improvements in Woodlawn to accompany a presidential library, including working with Metra to upgrade its stations at 59th and 63rd streets, improving street lighting and widening walkways and bike lanes.
For open-space advocates, the selection of Jackson Park was a disappointment because the park offers less flexibility than Washington Park would have.
Adjacent plots of land outside Washington Park, totaling 11 acres, were available for the presidential center and could have housed a parking deck, offices, perhaps even the library itself. That would have meant less of an impact on the historic park landscape, said Gerald Adelmann, president of Chicago-based Openlands.
He expressed hope that the center would be "park positive," increasing the amount of green space in Jackson Park by removing roads or existing buildings within the park.
Construction of the presidential center is not expected to start until well after Obama leaves office in January. The foundation still must raise hundreds of millions of dollars. And the design process could take up to two years. The aim is to finish the project by 2021.
Chicago Tribune's Marwa Eltagouri contributed.