A sliver of parkland for the Obama Library

Should Chicagoans give up a sliver of precious parkland to help create — to help win — the Obama Presidential Library on Chicago’s South Side?

The simple answer is yes.


It is a reasonable concession — a smart and forward-looking concession — that could bring to town a tremendous asset for all Chicago and, best of all, Chicago’s South Side. The University of Chicago, one of four university finalists vying for the library, is eying two roughly 20-acre sections of Washington Park and Jackson Park as possible sites.

Our tentative support for the concept is contingent on a key assumption: that the bulk of those roughly 20 acres will remain parkland, forever accessible to the public. The library buildings should be allowed to occupy only a fraction of the 20-acre campus, with the rest set aside as open space — very much, come to think of it, like a park.

That’s been the template for other presidential library campuses, and that’s what the University of Chicago says it intends. The university late Tuesday said in a written statement that the proposed sites “would consist mostly of open space,” with buildings occupying 10 acres or less.

But at this sorry stage, Chicago needs more than the university’s word. It has been far too secretive and dissembling.

Chicago needs a binding commitment. Let’s put it in writing.

City Hall is scrambling to persuade the public and the park district to transfer land in Jackson or Washington parks to the city for the library. The Obama Foundation made clear late last month that the failure by the U. of C. and the city to secure the parkland put the university’s bid in jeopardy. Two public hearings, which should have happened ages ago, are scheduled for next week.

Much remains open to negotiation. But any final deal should include a requirement that a sizable portion of the land remain parkland, forever open to the public.

If that happens — and it’s hard to see the city or the Obama Foundation saying no to preserving parkland — Chicagoans can rally behind this proposal with proud and unbridled enthusiasm.

This page strongly favors the Washington Park location, which includes 22 acres of parkland and another 11 acres at Garfield Boulevard and King Drive that are owned by the university and the city. As we’ve said previously, bringing the library to this under-developed and barren location can bring unprecedented and transformative economic development to the surroundings areas.

The location is just west of the university, knitting the park and the school together, and a few steps from the CTA Green Line, making it accessible to kids from Englewood as well as tourists from downtown. It also borders a major CTA bus corridor. The Jackson Park site is not near an L station and sits in a neighborhood that is somewhat stronger economically.

Another big plus for Washington Park: the 11 non-parkland acres (think parking lots) mean the library campus inevitably will eat up less parkland than the Jackson Park location, which includes only park district land.

A third location is getting modest play — the former U.S. Steel site at 79th St. and the lake. No parkland there. It’s already been dismissed by the Obama Foundation and the university, which whittled 20 sites down to three with input from the foundation and the public, but it may be worth a second look.

Yes, Chicago loses something here. It will give up parkland that cannot be replaced. But it’s a small sliver of 350-acre Washington Park, and the university pledges to create new parkland nearby that is greater than what will be lost.

Most important, the Obama library and museum will bring improvements to its small corner of the park and undoubtedly enhance the larger park, drawing resources and more visitors to a beautiful, but underused city asset.

And what of the precedent? Who will come knocking next on the park district’s door.

We know who it won’t be — Barack Obama.

An Obama Presidential Library would be, by definition, an exception to Chicago’s usual parkland rules. Winning the Obama library is a once-in-forever opportunity that would greatly enhance Chicago, the South Side and, despite the loss of a few acres, Washington Park itself.

This isn’t about the loss of a few acres of parkland.

This is about a win for all of Chicago.

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