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Use of Public Washington Park Land Could Be Snag in Obama Library Bid

By Sam Cholke | January 2, 2015 7:18am | Updated on January 2, 2015 7:32pm
 The University of Chicago is offering parkland in Washington Park and its own property next to the city's first tree arboretum as a possible location for the Obama library.
The University of Chicago is offering parkland in Washington Park and its own property next to the city's first tree arboretum as a possible location for the Obama library.
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University of Chicago

HYDE PARK — Although the University of Chicago owns more than 7 acres of vacant land near Washington Park that could be used as the future home of the Barack Obama Presidential Library, its bid also includes public park land — a potential obstacle to the project landing in the city.

A university spokesman this week declined to specify the boundaries of the proposed site, but said it included land owned by the university in the Washington Park neighborhood, which a December analysis by DNAinfo Chicago revealed to be 26 parcels acquired for $18.3 million over the last six years.

The site also includes a slice of park land in the neighborhood's namesake park, but the spokesman declined to say which part of the park would be used.

The university faced criticism from the Obama Foundation earlier this week for proposing the use of park land in Washington Park as well as in its two other proposed library sites, which include areas near Jackson Park at 63rd Street and Stony Island Avenue and the South Shore Cultural Center at 71st Street and South Shore Drive.

“There are major concerns with the three potential sites in the University of Chicago proposal given the fact that neither the school nor the City of Chicago control the sites,” an unnamed source from the foundation told the Sun-Times.

A spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District did not address the source's comments, but said the Park District is working with the university to support its bid and is coordinating with the Mayor's Office.

Cecilia Butler, president of the Washington Park Advisory Council, said last month that the university has not approached the advisory council about using the park.

She said the area on the western boundary of the park abutting the university’s property includes some of the most historically significant elements of the park. That includes a stand of Burr Oaks that predate the 1870 planning for the 372-acre park and the Daniel Burnham-designed refectory from 1891.

“That particular area is part of our tree arboretum, the first tree arboretum in the city of Chicago,” Butler said.

The Park District established the arboretum in 2004 to protect the oak savannah that was growing in an area between what is now Garfield Boulevard and 51st Street along King Drive when planning for the park started in 1870. The arboretum also protects a collection of large lindens, hickories and sycamores from when the area served as the tree nursery for all South Side parks.

The section of parkl and east of the university property also includes elements designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Horace Cleveland and Calvert Vaux in 1880.

South of Garfield Boulevard along King Drive is the Washington Park refectory, which is the colonnaded pool house designed by Daniel L. Burnham and built in 1891, and the park’s field house and tennis courts.

“I don’t think the first family would want to just plop down in a park,” Butler said at a Dec. 20 meeting calling on the university to open up about its plans for Washington Park. Butler could not immediately be reached for comment this week.

A spokeswoman for the foundation on Wednesday did not dispute the comments cited in other media reports about the concerns about trying to build the library on park land.

“Each institution is unique and has different strengths and weaknesses relative to the others,” the foundation said in a statement. “The foundation is looking at each response as a complete package and will choose the partner which, on balance, can offer the best opportunity to create an outstanding presidential library and museum."

Susan Sher, who is coordinating the university’s bid for the library, said the university is working closely with city officials and stakeholders on its bid for the library, and that the library could be an economic boon for South Side neighborhoods.

“We will continue to do whatever we can to ensure a smooth public process, focused on producing tangible benefits for our communities and building lasting partnerships that will sustain the presidential library far into the future,” Sher said in a statement Tuesday.

The anonymous foundation source was also critical of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s bid, citing uncertainty around new leadership at the school, which is getting a new president, board chairman and chancellor.

The incoming leadership at UIC has reaffirmed its commitment to the Obama library.

Also pursuing the library are Columbia University in New York and the University of Hawaii.

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