Let’s get bookin’ on Obama Library

No more secrets.

No more stealth.

No more leading from behind, assuming anybody has been leading at all.


It is time the University of Chicago reveal exactly what land, controlled by exactly whom, it hopes to build an Obama Presidential Library and Museum on; and it is time Mayor Rahm Emanuel take a forceful public lead in getting a deal done.

If City Hall does not move fast, Chicago could lose this plum to New York, and understandably so. As Lynn Sweet of the Sun-Times reported Wednesday, the Barack Obama Foundation is reluctant to choose Chicago for the library and museum if the city can’t get its act together and offer a site that is wholly controlled by the university or the city. All three sites proposed by the University of Chicago include at least some parkland, though nobody has said — it’s kind of an insider’s secret, folks — exactly how much parkland or who would control it.

More to the point, Chicagoans deserve to know every last detail about the taking of any public land. “Urbs in Horto” — City in a Garden — has been Chicago’s official motto for about 180 years, and nobody should take it lightly. Nobody — not even the city’s most elite university or some of the most powerful and politically connected people in town — should be allowed to encroach on a single square inch of park district land without a full public airing of any and all plans.

It is perplexing, so late in the game, that the University of Chicago’s bid for the Obama Library fails to address this most basic problem — how to acquire land it does not own. And we can’t help but wonder where the mayor, the alpha dog who prides himself on his attention to detail, has been in this.

Now the job falls squarely on Emanuel, and that’s not our opinion — that’s the word straight from the Obama Foundation. “The point is the city needs to solve the problem as much as the University of Chicago,” a source close to the foundation told Sweet. “It is not unrealistic for the foundation to believe that the city can resolve the issues in a timely fashion.”

Two weeks ago, we wrote that the Obama Library self-evidently belongs on the South Side of Chicago, in close proximity to so many touchstones of Barack and Michelle Obama’s public and private lives. We also wrote that the best of the three sites proposed by the University of Chicago would be the corner of Martin Luther King Drive and Garfield Boulevard, just west of Washington Park.

Given the news of the last two days, we are surer than ever this is the best site. Much of the land already is owned by the university, the city or the CTA. But even this site would include some park district land, encroaching on Washington Park.

How much of Washington Park? Excellent question. We’d love to know. The university has never revealed that salient detail, nor has it even asked the park district for the land. The university has kept things secret, Sweet reports, so as not to stir up public protest — and now that strategy may have backfired on them.

Any conversation about taking precious green space must begin this way: Ask for it.

In negotiations such as this, it can be hard to know what’s real and what’s for show. When the Obama Foundation expresses concerns about shifting leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago — as a reason to discount the university’s bid for the Obama Library — we can’t help but wonder if that’s just a weak excuse to exclude UIC. The university won’t fall apart or become any less committed to an Obama Library just because a new president and governing board are coming along.

But the foundation’s concerns about who owns and controls the sites proposed by the University of Chicago have a real ring of truth about them. Before signing a contract to build a house, people want to know the land is really there. And they want to know if they are buying or renting and who the landlord is.

The foundation has set a deadline for making a recommendation to the president and first lady by the end of March.

Time, for Chicago’s bid, grows short.

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