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Emanuel poised to announce plans for land acquisition for presidential library

WASHINGTON — The Friends of the Parks is cranking up a drive to force disclosure of the University of Chicago’s secret proposals to use Chicago Park District lands for Barack Obama’s presidential library and museum — but the push may be moot as Mayor Rahm Emanuel is poised to seize control and announce a public process for land acquisition in the coming days, I’ve learned.

With both the U of C and the University of Illinois-Chicago bids for the facility in trouble with the Barack Obama Foundation, City Hall — not the U of C — will now be in charge when it comes to getting rights to the sites, I am told.

I’ve also learned that the South Shore Cultural Center is fading as an active U of C option.

The foundation sent a thunderbolt to Chicago when a source close to the board said a few days ago that the U of C bid was in jeopardy because it does not own — and has no definite path to acquiring at present — any of the three South Side sites the school proposed in its Dec. 11 bid. The land is owned by the Chicago Park District.

The foundation’s issue with the UIC bid is quite different: whether new top leaders in the system have the same commitment to the project as the people they are replacing. The UIC immediately sent out a strong statement of support from present and incoming officials. But the UIC is the underdog here, so let’s focus on the U of C for now.

Friends of the Parks President Cassandra Francis emphasized in a letter she and top board members sent to the president on Dec. 30 that the foundation very much wants the Obama library and museum in Chicago – but not “in a park or public open space.”

Francis told me on Friday that next week, the group will be working with South Side community groups to “demand transparency” and force out details of how much parkland is really at issue — and learn more about the U of C promise to provide for replacement land.

City Hall is expected to soon be releasing that information, scrambling after the wake up kick from the foundation.

I am told the South Shore Cultural Center site now is not a U of C priority.

The center, a jewel of the city’s park system, is on Lake Michigan at 71st and South Shore Drive.

I hear there are a few reasons interest in this site is waning: a lakefront site invites a lawsuit. The Friends of the Park last November filed a federal lawsuit against the City and Park District to block park land near Soldier Field from being used for the George Lucas museum. The next hearing on that case is Feb. 26.

The clubhouse of the former South Shore County Club — the centerpiece of the park, golf course and beach — is a historic landmark; the site is about 60 acres, leaving little room for future growth, and its location is further away from the U of C’s Hyde Park campus.

The Lakefront Protection Ordinance also could complicate a transfer of the property to the city and make it an easier target for legal action to block the acquisition.

The two other U of C proposed sites include portions of Washington and Jackson Parks. I’m told the university is most focused on persuading the foundation and the Obamas to go with the site at 55th and King Dr. and Washington Park.

While the ultimate decision is up to President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle, the foundation will present the first couple an analysis of the sites — especially the potential for linked economic impact that otherwise would not happen — as well as a rundown on other important factors, such as the capital contribution a school is willing to make.

Rival Columbia University owns the land in its bid and local governments in Hawaii already have signed off on the parcels the University of Hawaii is proposing. The are no issues related to the UIC proposed sites on the West Side of the city.