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Rahm's Obama Library Plan Sent to Aldermen, Includes Use of Parkland

By  Ted Cox and Sam Cholke | January 21, 2015 9:34am | Updated on January 21, 2015 2:00pm

 Washington Park
Washington Park
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DNAinfo/ Josh McGhee

HYDE PARK — Mayor Rahm Emanuel began the process Wednesday to take control of up to 21 acres from one of the South Side’s two Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks for the Barack Obama Presidential Library.

Emanuel introduced an ordinance Wednesday asking the Chicago Park District to give up to 21 acres in Jackson or Washington parks for the University of Chicago’s bid for the Obama library.

"I wanted to make sure that we stepped in, met the foundation's questions, because it is essential that the president's library is here in the City of Chicago and not in New York," Emanuel said. "And I will do as necessary, through my office and the office of the mayor, to move heaven and earth to make this happen."

 Mayor Rahm Emanuel is formally moving to use of parkland as a "unique opportunity" to win the Obama Presidential Library.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is formally moving to use of parkland as a "unique opportunity" to win the Obama Presidential Library.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

The deal would only be triggered if the Obama Foundation, tasked by the president with finding a site for the library, chooses a site in one of the parks.

The University of Chicago has offered the foundation two large swaths of parkland, a choice the foundation criticized earlier this year because the university did not own the property.

In Jackson Park, 20 acres between 60th and 63rd streets on Stony Island Avenue are being considered. In Washington Park, 21 acres from 51st Street to Garfield Boulevard along Martin Luther King Drive are being offered as a supplement to 10 acres of university- and city-owned property on the northwest corner of Garfield Boulevard and King Drive.

Emanuel declined to say whether he would push the university for more, such as a trauma center protesters have demanded, after the university asked for city parks for its library bid. He said it was a separate issue.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), whose ward covers areas of Washington Park proposed for the library, strongly backed the ordinance.

"I want to see the Obama library in Chicago, I would love to see it on the South Side specifically," Dowell said at Wednesday's City Council meeting. "I'm advocating for Washington Park, but it is the choice of the Obamas, and hopefully they will choose us."

The ordinance sets an expectation that approximately five acres would be used for buildings and the rest should remain as landscaped open space, but stops short of making any specific requests for how the parkland should be used.

The mayor's office said it plans to hold the foundation to the standard of using no more than five acres of park for library buildings.

A second ordinance is expected if either of the sites is selected that would set out terms for building the library before the city would sign off on zoning changes or leasing the land.

The ordinance was introduced with 42 of the 50 aldermen signing on as co-sponsors.

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who is challenging Emanuel for mayor, called the ordinance a "land grab."

"We all want the library — this is the natural home," Fioretti said. "There's plenty of property and plenty of lands that U. of C. owns that they could have put the library there. This is an urban library. Do they need all this? No."

The Chicago Park District will consider the transfer at its Feb. 11 meeting.

At two public meetings last week, speakers were split over whether to give up the parkland, especially in Washington Park. Many expressed concern that they were being asked to sacrifice park land in a community overburdened with vacant lots. Others said the sacrifice was worth whatever economic benefits the library could bring to the low-income Washington Park neighborhood.

"It's clear where the neighborhood and community is," Emanuel said, reiterating that his view of the meetings was that the community was in support of using parkland.

The mayor’s office has also said it will form a committee of community members to determine whether to replace any used park land if necessary.

Emanuel said he was committed to replacing any parkland used for the Obama library's buildings.

"We will replace that acre for acre and make the open space whole," he said.

Ald. Will Burns (4th) called it a win-win for the city.

"I like that fact that there's commitments to replace the space that's used and commitments to improve open space," said Ald. Will Burns (4th). "It's not in the ordinance … but that's part of the commitments that have been made publicly by the university and the city."

The city and university have both pledged the library project would be park-positive.

Friends of the Parks President Cassandra Francis was not immediately available to comment, but said in the past the group would consider suing to stop the use of parkland similar to its action against plans for the Lucas Museum downtown if necessary.

Preservation Chicago called the transfer of property "illegal."

"We believe this proposed taking of public parklands is unnecessary, divisive and illegal," according to a statement from the group's board.

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