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Obama Library Bid Subpoena Backfires for POP Lawsuit

Current plans for the Obama Presidential Center (OPC)

In response to the Protect Our Parks lawsuit against the City and Chicago Park District, the Obama Foundation took the extraordinary step of publicly releasing the proposals solicited in September 2014 to determine the host site for the then designated Obama President Library (OPL). The four sites that were invited to submit proposals were the University of Hawaii, Columbia University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Chicago. Ordinarily such proposals are kept confidential since they are likely to include sensitive or controversial information and proposed plans and potential commitments in their earliest and most conceptual forms. More to the point, what is frequently presented in such proposals represents possibilities that advance the thinking about a project rather than being the full formed plans that will be carried out.

Protect Our Parks requested the release of the proposals presumably to uncover the extent of collusion among City, Park District, University of Chicago, and the Obama Foundation and, in particular, the influence of the University of Chicago on the Obamas’ decision. What the proposals seem to show instead is how different the final vision for the OPC is from the proposals, but also how that vision draws on both ideas from the proposals and subsequent public engagement discussions. Rather than being a Library with a Museum attached collaboratively managed by the National Archives and Research Administration (NARA) and a University partner, the current site is now called the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) and is now planned as a public community oriented campus housing a presidential museum and broad access to digitized presidential archives. It will be operated as an independent non-profit entity, funded and managed by the Obama Foundation, but broadly collaborative with government, institutional, and community partners. Discussion of the Plan Use Agreement, which returns the site to the possession of the city after construction is completed, can be found at the bottom of the page here.

The actual OPL proposals can be found here.

Below are some general comments about the proposals:

The Obama Foundation asked all applicants to answer the same set of questions that included information on institutional background; academic and program attributes and collaborative programming ideas that each would bring to an OPC partnership; descriptions of diversity commitments and community partnerships; and in great detail, their proposed site, project implementation, and vision for the OPC. Site-specific detail included descriptions and adjacencies, condition (environmental, current occupancy), required governmental approvals, funding support, project timeline. All of the universities hired teams of outside experts to do master planning, marketing, traffic studies, environmental and property evaluation analyses, and economic impact studies. All applicants also hired one or more architectural teams to help create a concept and vision.

Taken together the four proposals total more than 1,000 pages of information including a lot of photos, conceptual drawings, demographic information, and property documentation and analyses.

Comments on each proposal include:

One of the proposed building structures for the OPL Hawai'i site

University of Hawai'i: Offered 9.7 acre site in Honolulu’s Kaka’ako Waterfront Park. An urban waterfront (ocean views on three sides of the building) under broader development and located near but not on the UH Honolulu campus. Zoning requirements limit height, size, and amount of open space required (20% of site must be maintained as open space. It was noted that there was potential community concerns about the project based on increasing density, view obstruction, parking, and access to waves and casting spots.

Proposed OPL site for the Columbia bid

Columbia: Proposed two possible sites, one on Columbia’s Manhattanville campus and one across the street and adjacent to that campus. Some years back the creation of the Manhattanville campus created controversy as Columbia was buying up commercial/warehouse district land adjacent to Harlem. Although Columbia owned all the land presented, there were encumbrances that would have had to be dealt with including current commercial leases, construction-related “restricted declarations,” and possible environmental clean-up issues. It is noted that Columbia has the full support of the Mayor and Department of City Planning to make certain whichever site might be chosen would delivered fully abated and demolished of buildings.

Three potential sites in the UIC proposal: on the academic campus, the medical campus, and in the North Lawndale neighborhood.

UIC/Lawndale: The UIC proposal focused on the benefits the OPC could bring to UIC’s campus expansion plans and economic development to the Lawndale neighborhood. The UIC design placed the Library/Museum in a new town square area in Lawndale, and the OPC’s Visitors’ Center and Obama Foundation offices and functions on the UIC campus as part of a proposed “gateway development” about 5 miles east of the Library/Museum site. The separation would be bridged by improved city transportation infrastructure that would stimulate growth of a new business and residential corridor between UIC and Lawndale. Sites presented were owned by the City in Lawndale site and the State for UIC land. The proposal suggested that City and State funding would be required to improve transportation infrastructure.

UChicago: The UChicago proposal offered three potential sites in the neighborhoods of Washington Park, Woodlawn, and South Shore. The University consultants included three distinguished architectural teams – one for each neighborhood – to create visual concepts specific to each proposed OPC site. Notably, the Obamas selected none of these three teams.

Extensive demographic information was compiled along with commentary about the character of each neighborhood and the benefits and/or challenges that might accrue from siting the OPC in each. Since this is the proposal that will draw the most attention, it should be noted that the proposal content is deep with very helpful demographic information and includes comments and potential ideas that might be construed as controversial. However all of the information is presented neutrally, and at no point does UChicago recommend one site over another.

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