Obama’s presidential library: Make it a part of a South Side ‘master plan’

As we get within sight of the Obama’s last year as President the next campaign is heating up: the site for his presidential library. While bids have been presented by the University of Hawai’i and Columbia University in New York, the sheer number of bids coming out of Chicago in addition to the stronger connection the Obamas have with the city put it as the clear front-runner. The potential to have the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago is a boon for the city’s educational, cultural, and tourist scenes and if done well, the project could become a catalyst for positive impact in some of the city’s South Side neighborhoods and ones that need the most help. The bid has one glaring weakness though and it is the fact that beyond the location and the architecture and maybe some minimal streetscape changes, the bids as presented so far indicate little as to how the library can be used to create other improvements to life on the South Side.

This bid has the potential to be a great for the South Side, but it needs to go well beyond the area immediately surrounding the library’s site. Really, a master plan needs to be developed going forward that will be a cumulative effort on the part of the City of Chicago and the City’s local and regional planning agencies, the organizers of the library, and the communities involved to make sure the library isn’t just a one-off that gives quick short boost in economics. The library will in all likelihood be one of the more popular presidential libraries and really bring the number of cultural institutions on the South Side more in line with those in the Loop and on the North Side. The library alone won’t bring the improvements necessary for long-term growth and positive changes in community quality of life however, if it is just plopped down and the rest of the job left to fortune. The plans for the library need to consider two other major factors in improving the areas livability and solidify the South Side’s continued ability to grow: transportation access and green space access.

The reason a master plan that has the presidential library as its catalyzing element better prepares the South Side for redevelopment is that it can be the tool best fit to guide planning for the site in a manner that considers how the library can help long-term goals for positive change on the South Side be reasonably attained. While huge portions of the South Side need investment, the most practical place to begin is Hyde Park. It is one of the better connected and already more developed areas south of the Loop and arguing for more investment here that connects the neighborhood to the Loop and other parts of the South Side makes the most sense. By situating the library in this area not only is it conveniently located to the University of Chicago (and the Obama’s home) it would add to the growing number of sites already there: the Robie House, the Museum of Science and Industry, the DuSable Museum, and Jackson Park. Couple this with increasing development and tourism heading south and better connectivity to the rest of the city can be reasonable demanded, but is better supported because it would be in an area where it can be feasibly implemented.

One of the biggest problems for the area and areas further south is the limited access to transportation into/out of the South Side. A series of moderate to somewhat more intensive changes, but nothing on the scale of the Red Line south extension could dramatically improve transportation access on the South Side. With increasing need to get there, one of the first changes that could be made is turning at least the South Shore/95th Street and the Blue Island branches of the Metra Electric routes into high-frequency mass transit routes. Without even having to invest in new infrastructure the routes could be made into all-day speedy routes simply with new train sets designed for higher speeds and frequency. Think of it as an alternative version of the “L” serving the South Side. Such a change done in conjunction with the presidential library would not just serve people going there, but also thousands of transit users on the south/southeast sides of Chicago. Another potential option is to extend the Green Line all the way east along 63rd Street to the Metra Electric with a terminus at Jackson Park. This would serve as an intermodal transportation hub in Hyde Park/Kenwood that would better connect the CTA Green Line, Stoney Island busses, the Metra Electric routes, and South Shore Line.

Making sure green space is improved and not taken advantage of as developable land is also key to the success of a presidential library on the South Side. As of now, only two proposals call for using parkland for the library, both presented by the University of Chicago. If the goal of the City of Chicago is to improve quality of life for its residents, then the City must actively improve parkland. This should be the basis for preventing further intrusion into green spaces by any sort of building, public or private. However, this doesn’t mean that some green space wouldn’t be improved by such things. The site in Jackson Park should be off-limits to build, but the site proposed by the U of C at the South Shore Cultural Center actually is perhaps one of the few areas in the city where public parkland might be improved because of new construction.

Building the library here would do three things: first, it would help invigorate the South Shore Cultural Center with new life and could potentially be built as an addition to the current building lessening the need to build new structures. Second, it would potentially lead to the conversion of the golf course that currently surrounds the SSCC into a full-blown park accessible to the entire public and bringing continuous green space all the way from Hollywood Avenue in the north to 71st Street in the south. A plan for the library which includes using land fill to complete the small gap between 71st and 75th streets and connecting Jackson Park/the SSCC to Rainbow Beach Park would mean continuous park land all the way to 81st Street and potentially further considering the South Shore development site calls for lakefront park all the way to 95th Street. Finally, it would bring such a burst of activity to the park and cultural center that this spot could truly become a center for culture and community on the South Side.

Community, green space, access to transportation, better quality of life for Chicago residents (especially on the South Side): these are all things that fall within the political ideologies of the Obamas and improving those along side his presidential library would be a true way to honor the President as well as his family. The proposal for a Obama Presidential Library in Chicago need not exist in a vacuum and indeed it may be better done at a level that looks at how it can be a means to make other improvements to positively impact the communities there other than just bringing in tourists. The examples presented above are just a few amongst many potential improvements that can be made first in Hyde Park/Kenwood and then extended beyond those neighborhoods’ boarders into the larger South Side. Without a master plan that considers the long-range goals of the library and the ways in which those goals will be achieved the plans for the library will only be partially successful.