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Editorial> Best Game in Town
Chris Bentley considers the actual impact of presidential libraries.
HOK's proposal for an Obama presidential library in Chicago.
Courtesy HOK

If the political junkie’s current preoccupation is prematurely sizing up the 2016 presidential race, the architectural game of the moment is speculating where Barack Obama’s library will land once the 44th president has left office. Of course, here in Chicago we’re all but certain Obama will locate the physical manifestation of his legacy in his adopted hometown, where he taught law, launched his career in public service, and delivered victory speeches in 2008 and 2012. That’s still up in the air—New York, where he attended Columbia University, and Hawaii, his birth state, are both vying for the attention of a foundation tasked with establishing the library.

Why all the clamor? Conventional wisdom holds that a presidential library is an economic shot in the arm, a tourist boost and a longstanding attraction that wins its host city a burst of international attention. They’re usually privately funded and then handed over to the National Archive, so they’re bound to be a net positive to the area.

But how certain is this economic boost? A few years ago Illinois Institute of Technology Professor Marshall Brown corralled undergraduate and graduate architecture students in two different studios to examine the impact of presidential libraries past. Their research on 13 existing libraries did not resoundingly confirm the “build it and they will come” suspicions.

“It was interesting to find out, as far as we could find, no one had publicly compiled all that information before,” Brown told me in early June. It’s hard to draw blanket conclusions about economic impact—the size and location of the libraries vary greatly—but they’re generally not the boon they’re made out to be, at least in terms of raw numbers. Brown thinks the success of some libraries has to do with what they bring to the urban character of the neighborhood they end up calling home.

“They don’t attract that much energy on their own,” he said, “but if they’re sited correctly they can kind of add to what’s going on and act as a catalyst.”

Take Bill Clinton’s library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Situated between downtown and the airport, it fell on the decidedly urban end of the spectrum versus, say, Ronald Reagan’s library in suburban Simi Valley, California. Even JFK’s Boston site was in relatively remote Columbia Point. The Chicago locations proposed so far have mostly been around Hyde Park, so it seems, even at this early date, Obama’s should vie to be the first truly urban presidential library.

So let’s remember a few things as the conversation picks up. First, let’s look beyond the almighty dollar when we imagine what the footprint of this development might look like. Will it make room for public space, community programs, transit improvements? Will it announce its architectural significance in context, or land like a spaceship? (Or worse yet, compromise for conference center blandness.) Obama started his career in public service here as a community organizer. If Chicagoans want this library, let’s see communities from the North Shore to Northwest Indiana organize around great design. Tourist dollars chase great places, not the other way around.

Chris Bentely