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Emanuel won’t say whether he’ll require U. of C. to replace park land taken for Obama library

Will the University of Chicago be required to replace up to 22 acres of South Side parkland taken for the Obama presidential library with new parkland near Washington or Jackson Parks?

Not necessarily, according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Hours before the first of two public hearings on the U. of C.’s troubled library bid, Emanuel was asked whether he would demand that the land guarantee be put in writing.

He not only dodged the question. He made an argument for why replacing land taken from Washington or Jackson Park may not be necessary after all.

“This gives me an opportunity to remind you: In the last three years, I’ve added 750 acres of open land — on top of a base that existed [of] about 8,000. We almost did 10 percent in my first term of new parks, new open land for Chicago, of which 400 of that 750 [acres] is nature preserve,” the mayor told reporters at an unrelated news conference at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, 5039 N. Kimball.

“Not far from here, over on Western, is Roseland, which is now gonna become a nature preserve. So, we’ve already added 750 acres, not only to the park system. We are also rebuilding 320 playgrounds throughout the city of Chicago and done about 160 of them.”

But Emanuel was reminded that his own park expansion is a separate issue.

It doesn’t change the fact that the U. of C., the South Side’s largest land owner, is now proposing to take up to 22 acres, including an arboretrum, from a storied Washington Park designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

“Nobody looks at the parks that way,” Emanuel said.

He added, “You’re ahead of yourself. We’ll reserve the full answer to that when we’re done with the process in which we’re engaging the community.”

The U. of C. has promised to make its troubled Obama library bid “park positive,” without spelling out what that means. Does it mean additional open space, park improvements like a new South Side field house, or a combination of the two?

No matter what it means, Friends of the Parks and the Washington Park Advisory Council are dead-set against the idea of taking parkland for the Obama library.

Friends of the Park has already filed a lawsuit aimed at stopping Emanuel’s controversial plan to give movie mogul George Lucas 17 acres of lakefront parkland to build an interactive museum near Soldier Field.

Two mayoral challengers — Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) and County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia — also favor a University of Illinois at Chicago bid that does not require taking parkland.

Fioretti spoke during the hearing and received cheers and applause when he blasted the U. of C. and Emanuel for moving to use public land. Outside the hearing, he told reporters that Emanuel had “botched” the process. And he questioned why there was so much secrecy surrounding the plan until last week.

“When University of Chicago comes to us and says they want to use open public land for a private institution, the answer should be ‘No.’” Fioretti said. “I can’t believe what were seeing. We’re at the eleventh hour. Why wasn’t this told to the people of the city of Chicago” earlier?

In a statement issued hours before Tuesday’s public hearing, Fioretti accused the mayor of favoring the U. of C. after a secretive process that left the public on the outs — again.

“Our public spaces are not for sale and should be off-limits to development. Rahm’s willingness to turn our open spaces into spaceship parking and private playgrounds for the rich without public input shows he’s not interested in what the people of Chicago want,” Fioretti was quoted as saying, referring to an architect’s widely ridiculed design for the Lucas museum.

“Rahm’s idea of transparency seems to be having a hearing at the 11th hour when the decision is all but made. . . . This is another example of the lack of meaningful engagement with the public on issues that affect the city as a whole. A mayor with a better sense of priorities and respect for his constituents would be [taking] a comprehensive look at how Hyde Park could incorporate the Obama museum, a badly needed trauma center and other community priorities without seizing public land.”

Garcia joined the chorus, calling Washington Park a “jewel” and a gathering place for South Side families that “belongs to the people” — not the mayor.

“The people of Chicago are rightly opposed to encroachment on their public park lands. Yet, Mayor Emanuel wants to allow a private institution to confiscate land they do not own: people’s land,” Garcia was quoted as saying in a statement.

“This proposal was created behind closed doors under a veil of secrecy with no formal input from either park advocates or the public. Now, the mayor is collaborating with its proponents to push this land grab — just as he supports a land grab for his friend George Lucas on Chicago’s public lakefront.”

Emanuel continued to portray the naysayers as placing an economic plum in jeopardy.

“Presidential libraries come only once. I don’t think Chicago should miss on this unique opportunity educationally, culturally or economically,” the mayor said Tuesday.

“It’s a unique investment wherever they pick, and they’re gonna pick the city of Chicago. It’s a $600 [million]-plus economic boon, a tremendous opportunity culturally and educationally for enrichment. And that’s why I’ve decided to step forward and make sure that we don’t lose that chance.”

On its website last week, the U. of C. posted details of the library and museum development for the first time and tried to define how it proposes to make the community whole.

“The University recommends that the final plan for the library should be park-positive — in other words, the community should gain access to more usable parkland from this process than the presidential library would occupy,” the posting states.

“The Washington Park location would permit the development of additional green space along Garfield Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and the potential for other open space projects in the neighborhood near the park. Similar opportunities for new green space exist along 63rd Street and sites near the Woodlawn location.”