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Obama Foundation Says Vote To OK Parkland for Library 'Improves' City's Bid

By Sam Cholke | February 11, 2015 5:50pm | Updated on February 11, 2015 6:38pm
 Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly listens to testimony on whether parkland should be given to the city for the University of Chicago's proposal for the Obama library.
Chicago Park District CEO Michael Kelly listens to testimony on whether parkland should be given to the city for the University of Chicago's proposal for the Obama library.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

JESSE WHITE FIELD HOUSE — The Chicago Park District Board unanimously approved handing over a swath of Jackson or Washington parks if either is selected as the home of the Barack Obama Presidential Library — a move quickly praised by the Obama Foundation.

The board of commissioners heard an hour of public comment Wednesday at the Jesse White Field House, 410 W. Chicago Ave., before voting unanimously to transfer parkland to the city if either of two park sites proposed by the University of Chicago is selected.

"This was not an easy decision for us, and we spent a lot of time deliberating," said commissioner Avis LaVelle, who chaired the meeting for the vote. "What we think we're doing is positioning the city as favorably as we can in this grand sweepstakes for the Obama library."

The Obama Foundation quickly sent a statement praising the move.

“The Foundation welcomes the action of the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners which improves Chicago's bids for the Obama Presidential Center," the statement said. "We appreciate the City of Chicago’s efforts to develop a competitive and robust proposal and the engagement of the community and City Council in an open dialogue about the potential of a future Center.”

After two other public meetings, the Park District board of commissioners has heard more than eight hours of testimony on whether to give up parkland to support the library.

“The natural place as far as I’m concerned economically, historically, politically, every way I’m concerned is Washington Park,” said Timuel Black, a Bronzeville historian who’s lived north of Washington Park for 95 years.

But comments continued to be divided, with parks advocates pushing that parkland not be used if it is avoidable, particularly in Washington Park, where the city’s first tree arboretum is part of the proposed site.

“Some of the trees are pre-settlement trees, and one mighty oak was standing when George Washington was president of the United States nearly 250 years ago,” said Fran Vandervoort of the Washington Park Conservancy. “These trees would be cut down and replaced with a building if the City of Chicago has its way.”

A parallel ordinance is being considered by the City Council, which would accept the 20 acres of Jackson Park between 60th and 63rd streets on Stony Island Avenue or 21 acres of Washington Park from 51st Street to Garfield Boulevard along Martin Luther King Drive.

The mayor’s office has assured residents that the library would be encouraged to use 5 acres or less of parkland for buildings — leaving the rest open — and any park area used for buildings would be replaced elsewhere in the city.

The Washington Park site also includes three square blocks of city-, CTA- and university-owned land.

The University of Chicago is offering the two sites to the president for consideration against competing bids from the University of Illinois at Chicago, which has put up a city-owned site in North Lawndale; Columbia University, which is offering a site in West Harlem; and the University of Hawaii.

Bryan Traubert, chairman of the Park District board, recused himself from the vote because his wife, Penny Pritzker, is the secretary of Commerce in the presidents’ administration.

There continued to be complaints that the U. of C.  was allowed to be secretive for too long about its intentions to offer up public land for the library and that the public process is now being rushed because of it.

“I believe you’re being misled, just as the community has been misled,” said Robin Kaufman of Hyde Park. “They’ve created an emergency situation to make you think you need to give up parkland to get the Obama library on the South Side.”

The commissioners seemed to think the amount of discussion was adequate after two other public comment sessions on the use of parkland for the library at Hyde Park Career Academy and the Washington Park field house.

“By the time these six speakers finish, it will be eight hours of public comments,” said LaVelle, in the middle of Wednesday’s public comments. “I cannot remember any proposal that has gotten this much discussion.”

“I am committed to moving heaven and earth to ensure that the Obama Presidential Library makes its home on Chicago's South or West side, not on Manhattan's Upper West Side," Mayor Rahm Emanuel stated. "As the city where President Obama started his career in public service and raised his family, Chicago is united in its effort to welcome the president's legacy and the foundation of his future civic initiatives. Today’s action by the Park District is another step toward ensuring we've met the president's request to secure the three finalist sites.”

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