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U Of C Bought Tons Of Property Around Washington Park For Obama Library Bid

By Chuck Sudo in News on Mar 2, 2015 8:45PM

Photo credit: Curtis Locke

The four groups with bids still under consideration for the Obama Presidential Library face a Thursday deadline to submit more detailed proposals to the Barack Obama Foundation. Hopefully presumed frontrunner, the University of Chicago, lists all the properties they bought around Washington Park.

DNAInfo Chicago examined Cook County property records and found U. of C. spent six years and $18 million on 26 properties located near Martin Luther King Drive and Garfield Boulevard. The land purchases, which began when Barack Obama was still a senator, give an indication the university had a library bid in the works for years and already targeted Washington Park as the preferred site for it. The properties are all located within walking distance of the Garfield Boulevard Green Line station. Counting vacant lots owned by the city, the land totals 10 acres in size. U. of C. is “the only private property owner on Garfield Boulevard between King Drive and Prairie Avenue and on nearly four more blocks on King Drive from 54th to 56th streets.”

DNAInfo spoke with Arnetha Gholston-Habeel, who runs a veterans center at 5536 S. King Dr. and had no idea of U. of C.’s land grab until she tried to buy a city-owned lot to turn into an urban farm.

Gholston-Habeel said Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) told her he couldn’t support her plan because of the university’s efforts to land the Obama Library and that the university approached her about buying her property in 2012.

“It was bugging me, because I kept thinking, ‘What does the Obama library have to do with us?’” Gholston-Habeel said.

Property owners who did sell their land to U. of C. were handsomely rewarded. Saib Sweis owned and operated a convenience store next to the Garfield Green Line station for years. The university paid Sweis $1.1 million for his property. U. of C. paid $5 million in 2008 for the neighborhood’s former grocery store.

This news will further infuriate opponents of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to hand over more than 20 acres of Chicago Park District property if U. of C.’s bid for the Obama Library is successful. The transfer of that land will only cost the university $1, far below market value and way less than what the university paid for many of the surrounding lots.

That’s money that could have gone toward the adult trauma center South Side residents have demanded for years. A recent report from the Illinois Department of Public Health determined U. of C. had “sufficient resources” to staff a trauma center; the university announced a couple weeks ago it was launching a feasibility study to determine if they could open one.