Obama chooses Chicago to host his presidential library

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Posted: Apr 30, 2015 10:29 PM
Obama chooses Chicago to host his presidential library

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has chosen his hometown of Chicago to host his future presidential library, two individuals with knowledge of the decision said Thursday, placing the permanent monument to his legacy in the city that launched his improbable ascent to the White House.

Obama's library will be built on Chicago's South Side, where the University of Chicago has proposed two potential sites not far from the Obama family's home. It was unclear which of the two sites had been selected, but an official announcement was expected within weeks.

For Chicago, the decision solidifies the city's claim to Obama and the legacy of the nation's first black president. Yet it marks a harsh letdown for New York and Honolulu, two other cities that played pivotal roles in Obama's journey and competed fiercely to host the library.

While the library won't be built until after Obama leaves office, fundraising has already started for the expansive project, which is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build while serving as an economic engine for the surrounding area. The Barack Obama Foundation, formed by longtime Obama associates, screened proposals and recommended the winner to the president and first lady Michelle Obama, who only recently made the final decision.

Although Chicago's victory had long been anticipated, the decision brings to a close a hard-fought competition that began in the earliest days of Obama's second term. What started as quiet discussions among Obama loyalists in and out of the White House kicked into high gear in 2014 when the foundation began soliciting proposals and interested parties began lobbying the president in public and in private.

An initial list of about a dozen pitches was culled to four universities that the foundation invited to submit comprehensive proposals, replete with architectural designs, programming ideas and zoning assessments.

Each school had a compelling case to make.

The University of Hawaii, not far from Obama's childhood home in Honolulu, cast its proposal as an opportunity for Obama to continue his focus on the Asia-Pacific region after leaving office. New York's Columbia University, where Obama went to college, offered prime real estate on its new campus expansion in West Harlem. And the University of Illinois at Chicago presented its proposal as a chance for the president to invigorate a blighted neighborhood while reinforcing his commitment to public education.

Little is known about the contents of the University of Chicago's winning proposal, which the school has declined to make public. Still, the president has suggested that the library may be only one component of the post-White House project.

Presidential libraries often have accompanying policy institutes, presidential centers or museums. Obama has signaled an interest in spending time in New York and Hawaii after leaving the White House, and individuals familiar with the decision said Obama was likely to base other types of programming at the universities that lost out on the library itself.

Obama's decision to place the library in Chicago was conveyed to The Associated Press by two individuals with direct knowledge of the decision. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision hasn't been publicly announced.

Obama's foundation, the White House, the University of Chicago and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office all declined to comment.

But the individuals said the foundation's chairman, Obama pal and businessman Marty Nesbitt, spoke with the president earlier in the week about the announcement. A news conference that had been scheduled for Wednesday to announce the decision was postponed at the last minute, and is now expected to be rescheduled for mid-May.

That the University of Chicago had the inside track grew increasingly evident as the competition progressed. After all, Obama taught law there before becoming president, Mrs. Obama once worked for the school's medical center, and her former chief of staff was put in charge of running the university's campaign to win the library. Half of the Obama foundation's board lives in Chicago.

Yet while the Obamas had intended to announce the winning site by the end of March, a messy confluence of Chicago politics and Obama's busy schedule led to multiple delays.

The university's struggles to put forward a solid proposal burst into public view late last year when Obama's foundation let it be known publicly that it had serious concerns. The school, in its proposal, had failed to prove it could secure the Chicago Park District land on which it was proposing to build.

That set off a scramble by university officials and Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff. Despite vocal opposition from a park preservation group, the City of Chicago moved to acquire access to the property while state lawmakers fast-tracked legislation ensuring that Chicago could use public park land for the project, all but ensuring the library would go to the South Side.

But when Emanuel failed to win enough votes in his March re-election to avoid a runoff, the foundation opted to hold off on a final decision until the runoff vote in April, the AP reported. The library had become a potent issue in the race, and the foundation wanted to avoid injecting the library decision into the political fray.

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Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP