City Hall deal for Obama Center in Jackson Park: 99 years for $10

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A detailed site plan for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park | Obama Presidential Center

WASHINGTON – Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration will send the City Council two ordinances on Thursday to seal a 99-year deal to build the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.

City Hall officials involved in the negotiations with the Obama Presidential Foundation briefed reporters on Tuesday with the actual written legislation not available because it was still being finalized.

One of the ordinances includes the agreements between the foundation and the city, which includes the foundation paying the city $10 for the 99-year pact; the other ordinance clears the legal way to plow under Cornell Drive from 59th Street to Hayes Drive to be reconfigured as green space on the Obama campus. The closing of Cornell has been controversial.

Last May and June, the Chicago Plan Commission and City Council approved the zoning and authorized the Obama development under the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection ordinance.

“This is the next step in a process that has been ongoing for years,” Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman said.

Here are the highlights of what the City Council will be asked to consider:

*Amending a March, 2015 ordinance authorizing the transfer of the Chicago Park District land to the city for the Obama Center.

The boundaries for the complex since 2015 have changed, moving the development further north and east in Jackson Park, sweeping in Cornell Drive. The aim is to close Cornell to create a park connection between the Obama Center and the nearby Museum of Science and Industry

*The foundation will pay the city $10 in return for a 99-year agreement to use 19.3 acres.

Jackson Park Watch co-founder Margaret Schmid said, “The idea of leasing invaluable, irreplaceable public parkland to a private entity for $10 for 99 years is astounding in this era when public lands and natural resources are under attack in so many places.  Besides, Chicago’s finances are extremely precarious.  Yes, this is symbolic, but symbolism is significant.”

The Obama Center will become the 12th museum on park district land, city officials said. The 11 other institutions have their rights in perpetuity. Unlike the other museums, the Obama Center will not receive taxpayer funds to operate.

Reifman said the 99-year pact had to be structured that way to conform with needed companion state legislation.

*Under a “master agreement,” the Obama development will not move forward until federal reviews are complete, estimated at sometime next year.

This comes a bit late in the game –  after the city and Chicago Park District started work last month on building a new athletic field just south of the Obama site – needed because an existing track field is on land needed for the Obama development. The foundation is paying up to $3.5 million for the replacement field.

On Monday – knowing the legislation would be submitted on Thursday, City Hall said construction work would stop until federal reviews are complete. Forty have been cut down.

The Sun-Times revealed in August that trees were being cut down for the new field without final approvals in place.

While the City Council and the Chicago Plan Commission are under the control of Emanuel, the first chief of staff to former President Barack Obama, the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration are independent players.

The review was triggered because Jackson Park, designed by famed landscape architects Frederic Law Olmsted and Calvin Vaux, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

*Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said Cornell Drive will not be closed until 2020 – when other related roadway improvements – on Stony Island, Lake Shore Drive and Hayes – intended to handle Cornell traffic are scheduled to be completed.

*The Obama Foundation must prove to the city that it has an endowment – either cash or pledges – to cover the construction costs, which Strautmanis estimated at $350 million.

The purpose of the Obama Center complex – to include a museum in a 235-foot tower; a forum and a combination athletic/conference center – has shifted through the years.

The Obama Foundation announced in May, 2017, that Obama’s official presidential library will not be in the Obama Center, meaning the Jackson Park complex will not be part of the National Archives and Records Administration presidential library system.

A permanent location for the Obama Presidential Library has not been announced.

*Upon completion, the city will own the land and the Obama Center buildings.

*The Center must offer free admission 52 days a year and keep the open space available to the public when the rest of Jackson Park is open.

*The legislation also sets minimum minority hiring and contracting benchmarks for the project; the Obama Foundation self-imposed guidelines are more robust.

*There will be no park replacement land outside of Jackson Park, though the possibility was once on the table. The foundation and the city assert – and this is disputed by park preservationists – that digging up and planting over Cornell counts in making good on the replacement for the 19.3 acres.

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