CHICAGO — When urban designer Daniel Burnham created his 1909 master plan for the city of Chicago, the epicenter sat in what is now the Circle interchange west of downtown — right next to the University of Illinois campus.
That concept underlies the UI Chicago's bid to host Barack Obama's presidential library and museum, a goal the campus first announced last fall.
Planners envision a library at the center of the city (and campus), radiating out to the broader metropolitan area and beyond, just as Burnham envisioned.
"It's the center of the city and the center of the region, a gateway to the rest of the world," said Michael Pagano, dean of UI Chicago's College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs.
Pagano is part of a campus steering committee preparing a submission to the Barack Obama Foundation, which is overseeing the process of siting the 44th president's official library.
The foundation issued a request for qualifications in late March, inviting universities and others to apply. Responses are due by June 16. The foundation will then choose a group of bidders to submit a formal proposal, and announce the president's selection by early 2015.
The UI is one of several Chicago sites expected to compete for the Obama library, along with the University of Chicago and Chicago State University. Other potential bidders include the University of Hawaii, in the president's home state, and Columbia University in New York, where Obama completed his undergraduate degree.
The estimated cost is $500 million, to be paid with private funds raised by the foundation, officials said. The libraries are run by the National Archives and Records Administration, with ongoing support provided by an endowment and federal funds. Recent projects, such as George W. Bush presidential museum in Dallas, have also included related institutes or exhibits supported by private donations.
Illinois Democrats introduced a bill to commit $100 million in seed money for the project. Republicans blasted the idea, saying the state doesn't have the money.
Obama Foundation officials refused to answer questions Wednesday about the potential bidders.
Chicago-watchers say the city's odds are good. It's where Obama was first elected to public office, where he worked as a lawyer and community organizer, and where first lady Michelle Obama spent most of her life before moving to the White House. Chicago's mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is Obama's former chief of staff, and the head of the Obama Foundation is Chicago businessman Martin Nesbitt, a close friend of the president.
The University of Chicago is considered the front-runner. The Obamas lived in Hyde Park and Obama taught constitutional law there for 12 years. Several close Obama associates work at the school, including David Axelrod, the president's former senior adviser.
UI officials, however, say their campus offers several advantages.
For one, it's extremely close to downtown and easily accessible by expressway or El trains — great for tourists and school field trips, said Mary Case, university librarian at UI Chicago and co-chair of the steering committee for the project. The foundation wanted information about how accessible the sites would be to tourists and visitors and how the library would engage the community and affect economic development, she said.
Case said the school's mission aligns with Obama's priorities, described on the foundation's website as "expanding economic opportunity, inspiring an ethic of American citizenship, and promoting peace, justice, and dignity throughout the world." The library should also be "an anchor for economic development and cultivate a strong relationship with the library's surrounding community."
"The core mission of UIC has really been focused on serving the underserved, addressing economic and health disparities — the kinds of things that really resonate with the president's agenda," Case said. "We feel like there's a real synergy there, and an opportunity to help him continue his legacy when he leaves office."
Most of UI Chicago's undergraduates receive need-based financial aid, and the student body is diverse, Pagano and Case said. Obama has expressed interest in promoting the education of African-American males, a focus of the campus for several years, Case said. And the UI's health care enterprise focuses on treating underserved populations.
"We have a very strong emphasis on social justice, from a wide variety of disciplines," Case said.
The UI's hope is that the library could be the centerpiece of new programs that the president might participate in, funded by donations or "repurposing" parts of the UI's existing budget.
The advantages for the campus are plentiful, from economic development in the surrounding community to spinoff research and educational programs, Pagano said.
"It allows us to grow and expand our academic operations, by virtue of having a library and museum right here in our back yard. It would bring visibility to the campus," Pagano said.
He foresees donor-funded named colleges or new buildings close to the site, as well as academic programs connected to the library — not just for researchers but the UI's own students.
A study commissioned by the University of Chicago projected the library would draw 800,000 visitors a year, who would bring enough spending power to that South Side neighborhood to support 30 new restaurants, 11 new stores and a new hotel. It would create 1,900 permanent new jobs and an annual economic impact of $220 million, according to the study by the Anderson Economic Group.
The UI is looking at five potential sites — four on the east campus and one on the medical campus a few blocks to the west — but may add a sixth soon, Pagano said. Most of them are empty lots. The UI could possibly donate the land or offer a long-term, low-cost lease, Case said.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had pushed the idea of a single Chicago proposal but has backed off for the moment. It's possible there will be more pressure to collaborate later, after the foundation decides on a short list of bidders, but for now the schools want to "tell their own stories," Case said.
"In the end, it will be the president and first lady's choice. However, we all want it to be in Chicago somewhere. So I think at the appropriate time, there probably will be more energy around that possibility," she said.
The UI's bid is an extension of the university's land-grant mission to increase access to higher education, Pagano said, and a "huge" moment in the Chicago campus' development into a major research university.
"This is our coming out party," he said.
The sites under consideration for the Obama library at UI Chicago, though a sixth may be added soon:
1. Two corner lots north and south of Taylor Street and west of Ashland Avenue, just east of the UI Hospital
2. A parking lot at the southeast corner of Harrison Street and Racine Avenue
3. A grassy area at the northwest corner of Harrison and Halsted Street
4. A parking lot bounded by Taylor, Morgan Street and Roosevelt Road
5. A parking lot/building bounded by Halsted, Roosevelt and Taylor. The building houses computer operations.
Presidential libraries by the numbers
14: Presidential libraries in the National Archive and Records Administration's system once the Obama libary comes on line.
78 million: Official records housed at President Bill Clinton's library in Little Rock, including 20 million emails, 2 million photographs and 12,500 videotapes.
80: Terabytes of digital data at the George W. Bush library in Dallas, including 200 million emails and 4 million photographs
25,900: Cubic feet of text records projected for the Obama library
Source: The Barack Obama Foundation