Ald. Will Burns says Michael Reese site unfit for Obama Library, despite parkland controversy

The Michael Reese site just south of McCormick Place, pictured here in a December 2012 photo, was rejected early in the deliberations for an Obama Presidential Library location, but some library advocates, including mayoral candidate Jesus Chuy Garcia, are revisiting the location.
The Michael Reese site just south of McCormick Place, pictured here in a December 2012 photo, was rejected early in the deliberations for an Obama Presidential Library location, but some library advocates, including mayoral candidate Jesus Chuy Garcia, are revisiting the location.

By JEFFREY BISHKU-AYKUL
Staff Writer

Though the vacant lot where Michael Reese Hospital once stood has already been ruled out as a potential site for the Obama Library, some Chicagoans are urging reconsideration of the location. Ald. Will Burns (4th) disagrees, maintaining that it lacks accessibility.

The Obama Foundation rejected the 48-acre space last fall in favor of four finalists: the University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia University, the University of Hawaii and the University of Chicago.

The foundation is expected to give a final recommendation on where to place the library this spring, and the University of Chicago’s bid now hinges on a controversial plan to transfer as much as 21 acres of land from Jackson or Washington parks to the city.

With controversy erupting over the use of parkland, some Chicagoans — including mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia — have floated the former Michael Reese site as a prime location for the Obama Library.

But Ald. Burns, who supports using parkland to build the Obama Library, argued at a February aldermanic forum that the Stevenson Expressway stands in the way.

“And the Stevenson Expressway, not just for Michael Reese, but for the city of Chicago, is a major problem,” he said. “It makes it hard for people who go to McCormick Place to come south.”

Burns said road improvements connecting Michael Reese to McCormick Place would be ideal. But as he reminded his audience, “I don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.”

“I still think that there’s opportunity for great development at Michael Reese, but the city and our ward should be very selective about who gets the opportunity to do that,” he said. “They should pay the city close to market rate for what the land is worth.”

In an e-mail last week, Burns told the Herald that “I cannot represent that those challenges are the ones that dissuaded the Obama Foundation.”

He added, “I listed the challenges with the site because residents of the Fourth Ward who do not live near Michael Reese tend to know less about the site than residents who live near the site.”

A 2013 study examining development options for the site, released by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and led by architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), acknowledged a lack of access to transportation and the lakefront. But it also touted transportation possibilities for the site.

“By creating walkable and transit access to the Burnham Park lakefront, an isolated Reese site becomes a citywide destination,” the report noted.

It added that access to bus routes going downtown, a Metra stop and Lake Shore Drive would support the library.

The report estimated that a presidential library at the Michael Reese site would attract up to 1 million visitors a year and 4,000 jobs, while representing a net loss of $142 million to the city.

Placing a casino at the site was by far the most profitable option, generating a net gain of $208 million in land and tax increment financing proceeds.

But asked whether he would in any circumstance support placing a casino on the land, Burns called a decision on the matter “extremely premature,” adding that a publicly-owned casino was “very unlikely” given “significant regulatory and political obstacles.”

“Moreover,” he noted, “most the participants at the SOM planning sessions expressed strong opposition to locating a casino on the site.”

j.bishku@hpherald.com

Twitter: @jeffhba