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Obama library quest: University of Chicago talks to star architect Gang; UIC wants to be considered

President Obamdelivers remarks ConnectED Champions Change event- DC

President Obama delivers remarks at a ConnectED Champions of Change event- DC

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Updated: December 25, 2013 6:24AM



WASHINGTON — Working quietly, the University of Chicago is stepping up its pursuit for President Barack Obama’s presidential library and museum, already talking to one of Chicago’s architectural stars, Jeanne Gang, and assessing South Side potential sites.

The University of Chicago starts as a front-runner for the enormous Obama legacy project given the ties of the Obama family and close friends to the school. Many potential major donors in their orbit have significant U. of C. connections.

However, I have learned there is competition developing for the private University of Chicago, and it comes from two public universities in Chicago, with the University of Illinois at Chicago making a major push.

While UIC is developing proposals for a site on its West Side campus, Chicago State University is pitching its far South Side campus or, as an alternative, a presidential library and museum in the Pullman area.

UIC Board Chairman Christopher Kennedy is familiar with presidential libraries; he is the nephew of President John F. Kennedy, whose presidential library and museum is in Boston.

Kennedy told me, “I have strong feelings about a presidential library. They can be great economic engines.” Kennedy is urging Obama to locate his library in the city.

But where in Chicago? Well, that should be open to some discussion, Kennedy said.

“The South Side and West Side are both in need of economic development,” Kennedy said, noting that the Kennedy Library is associated with the University of Massachusetts and is adjacent to its Boston campus.

UMass is a state school with a broad mission, “not about educating the elite,” Kennedy said.

UIC Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares told me, “geographically and intellectually, we are a great fit for this library.”

Meares has already dispatched aides to visit several presidential libraries and museums, and she has put together campuswide task forces that are developing the UIC bid.

The UIC planning documents I examined put potential UIC sites for an Obama library adjacent to the Daley Library, near Hull House and across from the UIC Forum.

Besides Kennedy, a high-profile public voice for UIC, the steering committee includes UIC alum Tony Podesta, an influential Washington lobbyist whose brother John, a Chicago native, is close to the Obama White House.

Because of the long time needed to put together plans, U. of C., UIC and CSU have not waited for a formal process to be announced by the White House.

The process for deciding where to locate the Obama library and museum will be led by Marty Nesbitt and Julianna Smoot, though the White House has not officially announced it yet. The location decision is entirely Obama’s.

Nesbitt is Obama’s close friend and campaign treasurer who now runs the private equity Vistria Group. Smoot, an Obama 2012 deputy campaign manager and the 2008 campaign finance director, is a partner in the political and public affairs consulting firm Smoot Tewes.

Presidential libraries and museums are public-private partnerships, which in recent times have included university affiliations. At some point the White House will announce the formation of a foundation, to be led by Smoot and Nesbitt, whose wife, Dr. Anita Blanchard, is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

U. of C. executive Susan Sher, a close friend and former chief of staff for first lady Michelle Obama, is leading the drive.

While it’s been an open secret that U. of C. is pursuing the library, the school for the first time is acknowledging its quest for a South Side location.

The university told me, in a statement, the school “was fortunate to have President Obama on its Law School faculty for 12 years, and to benefit from Mrs. Obama’s leadership in several senior administrative roles (at the university and medical center.)

“The City of Chicago and the South Side in particular could benefit greatly from the cultural opportunities and economic development that a presidential library could bring.”

I’m told that architect Gang, best known for her 82-story Aqua Tower in Chicago, is one of several architects U. of C. has asked to offer “concepts” for a library and museum.

The university is considering a variety of sites not on the immediate Hyde Park campus. The city of Chicago has been studying the potential development impact of an Obama library on the 48-acre former Michael Reese Hospital site at 2929 S. Ellis.

Chicago State Dean Richard Darga, who is helming the Obama library drive for his school, told me the school has been working with community groups in Roseland, Pullman, Chatham and West Chesterfield in order to build a “broad spectrum” of civic and neighborhood support.

While CSU prefers a site on campus, at 95th and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, Darga said
officials are also joining forces with Pullman groups to study alternatives.

John Orrell, public relations director for the George W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum at the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas, told me he has talked to four groups in the past six months “interested in potentially hosting an Obama Presidential Library and Museum.”

James “Skip” Rutherford was the first chief of the Clinton Foundation and is now dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, located at the former president’s Little Rock library. He told me he has briefed several groups interested in landing the Obama library.

A group associated with the University of Hawaii is trying to land the library for Obama’s native state, which I don’t see happening.

The White House inner circle dealing with Obama’s post-presidential portfolio includes White House Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco and White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, who has deep ties to the University of Chicago. She is a former member of its board of trustees.

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet



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