City Council authorizes transfer of parkland to city for Obama library

SHARE City Council authorizes transfer of parkland to city for Obama library
SHARE City Council authorizes transfer of parkland to city for Obama library

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday appealed to Friends of the Parks to drop the threat of a lawsuit — and get on “one team, the Chicago team” — after the City Council removed a hurdle standing in the way of an Obama presidential library here.

By a vote of 47-to-0, the City Council voted to authorize the transfer of up to 21 acres in either Washington or Jackson Parks from the Chicago Park District to the city. Both parks were designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

A LONG-TIME PLAN FOIA finds emails that show parks were targeted early in process

Emanuel has vowed to “move heaven and earth” to win the coveted prize for Chicago and fend off heated competition from New York’s Columbia University.

The unanimous City Council vote on Wednesday does not exactly fall into the earth-moving category. But it’s an important step, nevertheless.

It means that all of the local impediments have been removed — except one.

Friends of the Parks President Cassandra Francis has threatened a lawsuit to block what she has called the “dangerous” and “unparalleled transfer of historic public parkland” for use “by a private institution,” the University of Chicago. The U. of C. is spearheading the plans to build an Obama library in either Washington or Jackson parks.

Francis has already filed one lawsuit — and won a preliminary victory in a federal judge’s sharply-worded ruling — to try to stop Emanuel from transferring 17 acres of lakefront park land to movie mogul George Lucas to build an interactive museum.

On Wednesday, the mayor appealed to Francis to get on board the Obama library bandwagon. He noted that the people who live around Washington and Jackson Parks “could not be clearer” about their support for the library.

“See this as an opportunity for the city in which you’re a part of and you love. We will work with you on issues as it relates to parks and parkland. We’ve done it even before this . . . We all collectively added 750 acres in the last four years. We can make this a win-win situation,” he said.

The mayor noted that people are already gobbling up apartment buildings near Washington Park “on the expectation” that the Obama library may be located nearby. That’s “the kind of impact you want to have” in a community starved for economic largesse, the mayor said.

“Friends of the Parks — their aspirations are something I share, [but] this is something unique. You’re not setting a precedent. . . . There won’t be another presidential library for a while. So this is a once-in-a-lifetime. Let’s all be on one team: the Chicago team,” the mayor said.

Francis was in the audience for Wednesday’s historic vote, but she left shortly afterward. She could not be reached for comment.

At a Chicago Plan Commission meeting last week, she hinted strongly that yet another lawsuit was in the works.

“The parks are irreplaceable assets worth fighting for and we defend this legacy fiercely — sometimes even through the courts when necessary,” Francis said then.

“We have great concern that Chicago’s parkland will be available to the highest bidder in the future and will threaten the life of our neighborhoods. . . . We refuse to accept that the only place to put the Obama presidential library is in a decades-old historic public park.”

Although the University of Illinois at Chicago has offered a rival proposal in North Lawndale, the Washington Park site is the overwhelming favorite.

The 21-acre site is bounded by King Drive on the west, East Garfield Boulevard on the south and South Ellsworth Drive on the east and southeast.

The Jackson Park site involves roughly 20 acres that runs from Stony Island to Cornell and East Hayes Drive to the Midway Plaisance.

The council vote was never in doubt. The only question was whether it would be the unanimous vote that proponents believe is needed to send a strong signal of support to the Obamas.

Retiring Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who finished fourth in Round One of the mayoral sweepstakes, initially cast the only “no” vote, arguing that, “It doesn’t have to be in a park.”

But Fioretti subsequently agreed to change his vote after the fact. Finance Committee Chairman Edward M. Burke rejoiced for the “lost sheep” who had returned to the fold.

Burke, the City Council’s resident historian, recalled that in 1945 the City Council voted unanimously to make Northerly Island the centerpiece of a failed bid for the United Nations that ultimately went to New York City.

“I’m not saying that the location of the Obama library would be as significant as the United Nations. But it’s clear that leaders of Illinois and leaders of Chicago as far back as 1945 envisioned public land being available for the kind of development,” Burke said.

Ald. Will Burns (4th), whose ward includes Washington Park, argued that the Obama library would have an equally important impact on Chicago’s South Side.

“There’s an opportunity to bring thousands of jobs — a $750 million investment in communities that have not been invested in for years,” Burns said.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) added, “We can build another park. But we cannot get another Barack Obama library if we don’t get this library. Matter of fact, if this library gets built, we will have more money to do more things in more parks throughout the city of Chicago.”

Mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia initially opposed the use of parkland for the Obama library before changing his mind to avoid alienating African-American voters who are expected to decide the runoff.

That gave pause to an Obama library foundation that doesn’t want to deal with the uncertainty of Chicago’s mayoral politics. The foundation put off a final decision on the library site until after the April 7 runoff.

Last week, Garcia tried to assure the Obama Library Foundation that it has nothing to fear if he is elected mayor of Chicago.

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