Emanuel pushes for Chicago parkland for Obama library

AP News
Posted: Jan 21, 2015 12:16 PM

CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced an ordinance Wednesday aimed at substantially improving the city's chances of hosting the Obama presidential library by setting aside space for the project in one of two parks on the city's South Side.

The ordinance would allow the Chicago Park District to transfer about 20 acres of land in either Jackson Park or Washington Park to the city to use for the library. The ordinance, which must be approved by the City Council, would greatly strengthen the University of Chicago's bid to place the library in one of the nearby parks. The president and first lady both worked at the school and the president launched his community organizer career in that part of Chicago.

After reports that the Barack Obama Foundation, which is overseeing the selection process, expressed reservations about the university's bid because of the uncertainty about the land, city officials and the school set out to address the issue before the foundation selects from four competing bids, including another from a different part of Chicago. That announcement is expected in March.

Last week, the park district held two public hearings. While some people urged the city not to allow the parkland to be used for the library, several speakers, including area residents and aldermen, urged the park district to support the land transfer for the library that supporters say would generate hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs to an economically struggling part of the city.

The Emanuel administration said that "based on the strong support heard" at the meetings for the transfer, he was introducing the ordinance — a move that was hardly a surprise given the mayor's recent comments that he would do whatever he could to convince the president to select Chicago over bids made by Columbia University in New York and the University of Hawaii. Although the mayor has said he would do what he could to help both the University of Chicago's bid and that of the University of Illinois at Chicago, which is pushing for the library to be built on the city's West Side, the new ordinance would clearly strengthen the University of Chicago's bid.

The proposed ordinance would restrict the library building — the repository of presidential papers and artifacts — to about five acres. The remaining acreage would, according to the ordinance, be maintained as parkland. It also calls for the appointment of a committee to identify land that would replace the green space taken by a library, and it would only transfer the land if either park is selected as the site for the library.

Whether or not the land transfer triggers a lawsuit remains to be seen. But an ordinance that affects parks designed by famed architect Frederick Law Olmsted in a city that has a long history of protecting its parkland, observers say a lawsuit is likely if the Obamas select either park to build the library.

The park district will consider the agreement at its Feb. 11 meeting, according to the mayor's office. City Council approval is widely expected.