WASHINGTON — The first boost the Obama library, museum and presidential center will give to Chicago’s South Side will be in a few weeks when an announcement ceremony takes place at either Jackson Park or Washington Park.
The Sun-Times first reported on April 14 that the decision was made to locate the Obama development on the South Side. A source said the choice of which park will host the facility now will be made sooner rather than later. The announcement is being orchestrated by the Chicago-based Barack Obama Foundation.
In a related development on Friday, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill designed to pave the way for Chicago parkland to be used for both “Star Wars” creator George Lucas’ proposed lakefront museum and the Obama project.
The bill, drafted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Hall,sprinted through the state House and Senate: It was introduced and passed by both chambers in one day earlier this month.
From his office in the state Capitol, Rauner said before signing, “It’s an honor today to sign this piece of legislation.” It will “enable and facilitate land acquisition for President Obama’s library to come here to the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago,” he added. “It will be a wonderful institution for the people of our great state.”
The Obama project will “help drive economic development and tourism and visitors from all over the United States,” Rauner said. The governor said the Lucas museum would also be a “wonderful economic driver.”
The University of Chicago bid for the library – which beat out submissions from Columbia University in New York, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Hawaii — proposed using portions of Jackson or Washington parks, both near its Hyde Park campus.
Using parts of either park – both of which were designed by the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted —generated a lawsuit threat from the Friends of the Parks preservation group, whichis already urging a federal judge to block the Lucas museum.
But the new law signed by Rauner specifically allows parkland to be leased for a presidential library. It also undercuts a central legal theory being used by the Friends of the Parks in the Lucas case, by allowing the museum to be built on “formerly submerged land.”
At the White House briefingon Friday, I asked White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest about the bill.
Last Friday, Obama called Emanuel, State Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and state House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago – all at Emanuel’s City Hall office – to thank them for addressing any potential legal problems.
“I’ve heard about this telephone conversation,” Earnest acknowledged.
“I can say that the president has been getting updates on this situation,” Earnest said. “Again, he has been in touch with those who are responsible for leading the efforts of the foundation to get the library process off the ground. But I don’t think I would describe it as the president closely following the situation. He’s got a lot of other things on his plate.”
I asked if Obama “was aware then of the controversy over the use of parkland?”
Earnest replied, “I would say that the president has been regularly updated on the activities of the foundation, and obviously updated on the kinds of conversations that they’re having with the cities who have applied, or who have bid on the library.”
Friends of the Parkscontinues to be concerned about the use of parkland for the Obama facility.
The group’s chairwoman, Lauren Moltz, appealed to Obama in a statement, which made no mention of legal action, to “consider” saving the parks.
Cassandra Francis, who recently stepped down as Friends of the Parks president, was more outspoken in her statement.
“I believe that there are public trust legal issues with this park site choice and I am also curious as to how the city leadership plans to accomplish this feat without spending public dollars and further dividing the community,” she said. “I look forward to remaining connected to this important open space protection issue as the conversation progresses.”
And Charles A. Birnbaum, CEO of the D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, said in a statement, “This is an unprecedented land grab that upends decades of progress in sound park stewardship and opens the door to the privatization of public parkland nationwide.”