War of words over Obama library sites in Washington, Jackson parks

Staff Writer

Officials and citizens from across the city spoke out last week in favor of, or in opposition to, using public parkland as a home for the Obama presidential library.
The University of Chicago pitched using 21 acres of parkland on the west side of Jackson Park from 59th to 64th streets as a location for the library, or using 22 acres on the west side of Washington Park, from 51st to 55th streets.

After the U. of C.’s bid to host the library was rumored to be in jeopardy, when an unnamed source close to the Barack Obama Foundation said the university had no plans to take ownership of the land, Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped in to help secure it.

Emanuel in the past has said publicly that he would support a South Side presidential library, effectively endorsing the U. of C.’s bid.

In a letter to the Obama Foundation, Alds. Pat Dowell (3rd), Will Burns (4th), Leslie Hairston (5th) and Willie Cochran (20th) said they supported using either park for the library.

Friends of the Parks, a Chicago-based organization that defends open and green space, sent a letter to the Obamas urging them not to locate the library inside a park.

“Similar to our opposition to the placement of the George Lucas Museum in a Chicago lakefront park (currently in litigation), Friends of the Parks opposes the placement of the Obama Presidential Library in a park or public open space. There is significant community opposition to any park site for the OPL similar to the strong opposition to the proposed siting of the Olympic Stadium in Washington Park during Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics,” FOTP board members Lauren Moltz, Fred Bates and President Cassandra Francis said in the letter.

The Sun-Times reported that foundation president and Obama’s friend Marty Nesbitt applauded the university unveiling its proposal.

“We think the University of Chicago’s decision to release this information shows that they are moving energetically to engage with the community and put forward the strongest proposal they can, just as UIC has also worked to address any concerns around their proposal. We also believe Mayor Emanuel’s leadership on the City’s effort to work with the two Chicago schools and engage the community is a similarly positive step as the Foundation moves toward a recommendation,” Nesbitt, a Kenwood resident, said in a statement.

As an alternative FOTP recommended using land adjacent to the park and building a taller library to compensate for the smaller footprint.

Nearly 40 South Side stakeholders, including business and community leaders, signed a letter to Mayor Rahm Emanuel to encourage making public land available for the library.

“We favor prompt steps to resolve the issue of parkland. As people who live and work on the South Side, we are deeply proud of our historic parks, which help make this a wonderful home. We support a plan that honors the distinctive character of our parks while maintaining and enhancing the park space available to the public — a key element of the South Side’s bid for the library. If making parkland available on these terms will help bring the library to the South Side, you have our strong support to get it done,” the letter read.

Washington Park Advisory Council President Cecile Butler said that she has requested a meeting with university President Robert Zimmer, through a formal letter in early December, but has yet to receive a response.

Butler was among the signers supporting bringing the library to Washington Park but said it is a call the Obamas need to make.

In her December letter she requested that that Zimmer and the university come to a community benefits agreement with the Washington Park neighborhood.

The agreement requests the university address the need for a trauma care center, retaining affordable and low-income housing, job training and other education issues and placing fences around all the university-owned vacant lots in the neighborhood, among other issues.

“We do not want to continue to be a stepchild in this broken social contract in our community. You treat your neighbor the way you want to be treated, nothing less,” Butler said.

The university unveiled details of its proposals after an unnamed source close to the foundation told the Sun-Times that it did not own any of the land it pitched to use.

Only about 10 acres on either site would be occupied by buildings and the project would leave more green space than it takes up, university spokesman Jeremy Manier said.

The 11 acres the university owns in Washington Park were also included in the bid.
In its original bid the university proposed the South Shore Cultural Center, but that option has been taken off the table.