Presidential libraries are more than just constructed monuments to the egos of powerful men. They can serve history, promote civic pride, and boost economic development in distressed communities. So it’s no surprise that the competition to host Barack Obama’s presidential library is fierce, with elaborate bids from rival cities, grand promises, poll-driven claims, even a rallying song — in other words, a spectacle not unlike a presidential campaign itself.
Partners from three US cities have submitted proposals for the library and museum, each making a claim on Obama’s loyalty. The frontrunner is most likely the University of Chicago’s bid to develop 32 acres near its campus on the city’s depressed South Side. But the bid has provoked a hot controversy because it involves the taking of some 20 acres of public parkland, designed in the 1870s by Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux.
The University of Illinois, a public institution, wants to develop a different site, on Chicago’s West Side. Columbia University (where Obama received his undergraduate degree) submitted a plan to incorporate the library into its 17-acre campus expansion in Harlem. The University of Hawaii’s proposal in Obama’s native Honolulu rounds out the competition.
The Barack Obama Foundation is expected to make its choice later this month. It has tried to remain above the grubby political fray, but in Chicago, at least, this hasn’t been easy. The University of Chicago’s ties to the Obamas run deep: Several senior officials in the university have worked for either Michelle Obama or the president. And of course, Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel — currently embroiled in an unexpectedly tight runoff campaign for reelection — was White House chief of staff.
Emanuel has said he will “move heaven and earth” to bring the library to Chicago, and he has engineered a land transfer from either Washington Park or Jackson Park, both designed by Olmsted and Vaux. The Chicago Park District Board voted unanimously last month to approve the transfer, despite opposition from park advocates, and the Chicago Planning Commission and City Council will take up the issue in the coming weeks. “We don’t expect any of those bodies to do anything but rubber-stamp” the plan, said Cassandra Francis, president of Chicago’s Friends of the Parks.
Like the mythical Cassandra, Francis has been issuing dire warnings about the precedent of public parkland going to a private institution — counsel that is largely being ignored. The Obama library would be publicly run by the National Archives but built and funded mainly by the private Obama foundation. The university will not consolidate the library on 11 acres of land it already owns across the street from the park site, claiming it isn’t grand enough, though the John F. Kennedy library in Dorchester — the only other presidential library in an urban setting — is on 10 acres. The city promises a “park positive” swap of other land in exchange for the Olmsted property, but has not said where that would be. Park advocates say such a deal is like amputating an arm and giving back a glove.
With time short, the Chicago push has taken on the full trappings of a political campaign. Both universities have posted heartwarming video ads. Supporters of the University of Chicago’s bid even obtained the rights to local R&B crooner Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home” to use as a campaign anthem.
Team Chicago may be feeling a certain urgency because rumors have circulated that Michelle Obama’s first choice is New York, where Columbia already has clear title to its land. And Chicago may still be traumatized by losing its bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. Indeed, one site briefly considered as an alternative for the Obama library is a vacant 48-acre city-owned parcel that was to be the Olympic Village.
A poll the Obama foundation commissioned shows strong support for the library among the university’s neighbors, but opponents say the questions didn’t offer respondents a chance to support alternative sites. “They’re creating this level of desperation that everyone is buying into,” said Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, a national group that advocates for endangered public spaces. He says the idea that Chicago will lose the library if it isn’t allowed to confiscate parkland “is a false choice.”
In a way, the University of Chicago’s development plan is a form of city-building, a growing role for large nonprofit institutions. As local governments increasingly lack the resources to properly maintain their parks or business districts, especially in low-income neighborhoods, private nonprofits have stepped in. “This is a major project for this part of the South side,” said Jeremy Manier, director of public affairs for the university. “It could be a game-changer for these neighborhoods.”
The university has waged a masterful campaign to win the library. But only the Obamas can decide whether seizing part of a historic park is fair game.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
Clarification: An earlier version of this column on the Obama presidential library described an opponent’s concerns that public parkland would be used for a private institution. The library would be publicly run by the National Archives but built and funded mainly by the private Barack Obama Foundation.