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Emanuel’s push for Obama library: Hearings next week, South Shore park dropped as contender

Mayor Rahm Emanuel took the first public steps on Monday to rescue the University of Chicago’s troubled bid for the Obama Presidential Library and Museum, moving to secure rights to Chicago Park District land and taking the South Shore Cultural Center off the table.

“I want to make sure that, if there’s any issues, that we resolve those so we’re competitive against New York and this becomes an easy decision for the president to pick his hometown for where his presidential library, in my view, belongs,” Emanuel said at a news conference dominated by the city’s preparations for the incoming blast of snow and cold.

Speaking of the bids of the U. of C. and the University of Illinois at Chicago for the library and museum, Emanuel said: “I’m gonna play an active role in making sure that . . . the two [Chicago] university plans are extremely competitive.

“That’s why we’re starting the community engagement process,” Emanuel said, referring to newly scheduled Chicago Park District hearings on the land transfer.

The Chicago-based Barack Obama Foundation sent a thunderbolt to the city last week when a source close to the board said the U. of C. bid was in jeopardy because the school’s three proposed locations were on Chicago Park District land it does not own and did not have a clear path to obtaining.

The Chicago Sun-Times has learned that President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle – who make the final decision — are looking for a campuslike setting for their legacy institution.

Once the foundation gets a guarantee that the city has rights to the proposed sites, the U. of C. returns to its front-runner status with Columbia University in New York next in line.

The foundation set a self-imposed end-of-March deadline for assessing the bids. In fast-moving developments:

  • As the Sun-Times reported last week – and it became official Monday – a source close to City Hall said Emanuel removed from city consideration one of the sites proposed by the U. of C.: the lakefront South Shore Cultural Center, a jewel of the park district. The source said the former South Shore Country Club site – now a beach, golf course and park with a historic landmarked clubhouse – was not big enough to increase access or expand green space. As a practical matter, because lakefront development is controversial in Chicago — Friends of the Parks is suing over the George Lucas museum on park land — eliminating South Shore takes away for Emanuel a potential lawsuit and political headache.
  • The source said the U. of C. bid seeks 10 acres in either Washington Park or Jackson Park. The Sun-Times has reported that the Washington Park location – near 55th and King Drive – is the favored site.
  • The Chicago Park District will hold two community hearings to solicit input about the U. of C. proposals: at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 13, at Hyde Park High School, and at noon Wednesday, Jan. 14, at the Washington Park Field House.

<small><strong>Jackson Park on Jaunary 5, 2015 could be one of two proposed sites for Obama Presidental Library and Museum. | Jennifer T. Lacey/ For Sun-Times Media</strong></small>
Jackson Park on Jaunary 5, 2015 could be one of two proposed sites for Obama Presidental Library and Museum. | Jennifer T. Lacey/ For Sun-Times Media

<small><strong>Snow covers Washington Park, a possible site for the Obama Presidental Library and Museum on January 5, 2014. | Jennifer T. Lacey/ For Sun-Times Media</strong></small>
Snow covers Washington Park, a possible site for the Obama Presidental Library and Museum on January 5, 2014. | Jennifer T. Lacey/ For Sun-Times Media

Susan Sher, the U. of C. executive in charge of the university’s bid, said in a Monday afternoon statement, “Locating the Barack Obama Presidential Library on Chicago’s South Side offers a tremendous opportunity for Chicago and for South Side communities. We look forward to hearing further community input regarding the University of Chicago’s proposed sites in Washington or Jackson Park for the presidential library, where it will join other public cultural institutions and help to reinvigorate the South Side economy.”

For the city to get long-term rights to the land for the library and museum, there will have to be votes by the Chicago Park District Board and the City Council.

Mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County Board commissioner, joined Friends of the Parks in urging Emanuel to steer clear of park land — especially in the middle of a court fight over the mayor’s controversial plan to give movie mogul George Lucas 17 acres of free lakefront park land to build an interactive museum near Soldier Field.

Garcia said he backs the UIC bid. Emanuel has said he favors an Obama library and museum on the South Side, an implicit endorsement of the U. of C. over UIC. However, City Hall has been working with both schools to bolster their bids.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who represents part of the Washington Park community, described herself as a “cheerleader” for an Obama Presidential Library, which she called a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to “honor one of our own” and spur both housing and commercial development.

But, she said, “There’s definitely a need for community involvement in how that site is laid out, how it’s oriented, what it looks like. None of that has been discussed.”

Ald. Will Burns (4th), whose ward includes the northern half of Washington Park, said he, too, remains in the dark about the site plan and only started pressing the mayor’s office for specifics on Monday.

While he wants the Obama library on the South Side, “The devil is always in the details. I want to see how this all works out in bringing benefits to the parks and more green space.”

The foundation also had concerns about leadership changes at the UIC, which is proposing sites on the West Side. The UIC is considered an underdog, while the University of Hawaii is on track with the foundation to get a “presidential center” to be run in partnership with the winning school either in Chicago or New York.