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Chicago Moving On Park Land For Obama Library

David Ohmer (flickr.com/the-o)

Chicago officials are trying to shore up their bid to bring the Obama Presidential Library to the president’s hometown.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday introduced an ordinance that paves the way for transfer of land from the Chicago Park District to the city. The city would then make the land available to the University of Chicago, supporting the school’s two proposals to have the library built in either Chicago’s Jackson Park or Washington Park – both free, public park space. The Chicago Park District and City of Chicago are separate entities and the city doesn’t own park land. The Park District is expected to consider the city’s request next month.

“The Obama Library belongs in Chicago,” Emanuel says. “This ordinance will help as we continue to work with the (Obama Presidential Library) Foundation and both Chicago universities to ensure that the city’s bids remain competitive.”

In return – and to appease activists who don’t want park land sacrificed for the library – a task force would look for more land in the city that could replace the park land transferred for the library.

The mayor and city council’s moves come after Emanuel reportedly got wind that the U of C bid for the library could be in jeopardy because of to the land issue. The mayor also reportedly got a whispered heads up that the foundation heading the search for the library location was concerned about whether the incoming University of Illinois Chicago chancellor would support the university’s bid as strongly as the departing leader has. UIC issued a letter assuring the foundation that the new chancellor favored its plans for bringing the library to the city’s West Side.

There have been squabbles over U of C’s bid because proponents don’t want public park space used. Friends of the Park, a non-profit organization that has been an outspoken objector, made clear that “our one concern is that the addition of this important facility to Chicago not come at the expense of parks or public open space.”

Mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia echoed those concerns. “I embrace the effort to bring the Obama Presidential Library to Chicago, a city that is rightly proud to call itself the home of the nation’s first Black president,” Garcia said in a statement. “But this endeavor does not need to be linked to a private raid on the people’s limited public assets.”

Other community groups have signed on to support the U of C bid, including use of the public space. “The park is owned and utilized by the community, and what better way to utilize the park space than to put the first African-American president’s library on the actual park itself,” said Torrey Barrett, executive director of the KLEO Family Life Center. The community center is located less than a mile from the proposed Washington Park site, and Barrett says some of its programs might find a new home in the presidential library.

Still, there is a consensus among city leaders– and among some state lawmakers -- about bringing the library to the city, no matter which of the three locations.

“It’s a big morale boost,” says state Rep. Art Turner, a Democrat from Chicago. “As a state, I think there is an appetite to support” brining the library to the city.

Democratic state Rep. LaShawn Ford, also from Chicago, says the UIC proposal to bring the library to his West Side area in the city would be an economic boon. But, he says the “number one thing” is to have the library in the hometown.

“I think our goal should be to just make sure that we land the library in Chicago,” Ford says.

The University of Chicago, the University of Illinois Chicago, Columbia University in New York and the University of Hawaii have all pursued the Obama Presidential Library. The foundation is expected to choose a location before the end of March.

Rhonda Gillespie is in the Public Affairs Reporting graduate program at University of Illinois Springfield and covers state government and politics for Illinois Issues magazine. She was previously managing editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper and a reporter for other Chicago and national news, university and trade outlets. She can be reached at (217) 206-6524.
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