U. of C. moves to shore up support for its Obama library plan

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Days away from public hearings, the University of Chicago tried Wednesday to shore up support for a troubled bid for the Obama presidential museum and library that counts on using up to 22 acres of South Side parkland.

The effort comes as an alderman and yet another mayoral candidate said they were troubled by giving parkland away for the library.

The U. of C.’s community outreach efforts have been going on for months, but the specific site and precise amount of acreage in either Washington or Jackson Park has been kept under wraps.

That closed-door phase finally ended this week, when the university posted details of the library and museum development for the first time. It envisions using 22 acres in Washington Park or 21 acres in Jackson Park — all land owned by the Chicago Park District that needs to be promptly transferred to the city.

The ordinance authorizing the land transfer must be approved by the City Council’s Committee on Special Events, Cultural Affairs and Recreation, chaired by Ald. Joe Moore (49th).

Moore said he is troubled by the plan to take up to 22 acres of green space in a storied park designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead — especially on the heels of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s controversial plan to give movie mogul George Lucas 17 acres of lakefront parkland to build an interactive museum near Soldier Field.

“The parkland they’re taking for the Lucas Museum is a parking lot. I’m not as concerned about that as I am about taking up green space,” Moore said.

“We want the library in Chicago, but you hate to set that kind of precedent by giving up that much parkland. In a perfect world, they would do it on land that didn’t belong to the park district. I have to see what alternatives there are and what the community groups and elected officials in that area have to say. Maybe there’s a swap that could be worked out.”

Cecilia Butler, president of the Washington Park Advisory Council, attended a breakfast meeting Wednesday at the Triangle Club on the U. of C. campus with university officials Susan Sher and Derek Douglas, both of whom worked in the Obama White House.

Butler said she came away from the meeting more determined than ever to block the Washington Park plan.

“They didn’t show us plans for a building. They just showed the area they own at 55th and King and the area within the park. My response to them is the park is a national landmark. That particular area is a tree arboretum, and anything you do in that area will not be accepted,” Butler said.

“I only support the use of the park if the President of the United States of America comes and asks me saying this is where he wants his presidential library to be. I couldn’t turn him down. But if anybody else, including the mayor, asks me, I don’t support it. I am a park lover. I have dedicated decades to Washington Park and I plan to continue doing the same thing.”

Ald. Will Burns (4th), whose ward includes Washington Park, said the university needs to flesh out its “park positive” plan to replace every acre of parkland taken for the Obama library with additional green space somewhere else on South Side.

But Burns said he doesn’t need to get the promise in writing before signing off on the land transfer from the Park District to the city.

“If the president says we need all 22 acres, we have to have a serious conversation about what that means, but those are things we’ll work through after the president makes a decision. I’m prepared to sign off on it without, what you would call an ironclad guarantee [that parkland would be replaced nearby] because I believe their commitment,” Burns said.

Burns said he assured Douglas Wednesday that the “game-changer” of a project has the alderman’s unbridled support.

“You’ve got to understand that, for a lot of people on the Mid-South Side, there’s a sense that we don’t get what a lot of other people get. People are desperate for things that bring positive attention and acclaim to the South Side. I don’t think you can underestimate that,” Burns said.

“Remember the outrage over naming the high school on the North Side Obama Prep? This is the flip side of that coin. That feeling doesn’t trump everything but it’s really important. The ability to link the Mid-South Side to the first African-American president and have his library here is huge.”

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) couldn’t disagree more.

On Wednesday, Fioretti joined fellow mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in condemning the plan to take up to 22 acres of South Side parkland for the Obama library.

“They have one of the largest endowments in the country and they couldn’t find private land for this? It’s outrageous. Public land is not for sale to billionaires,” Fioretti said of the University of Chicago.

“This is the same thing we’re doing for the Lucas Museum. We should be outraged at the conduct of this mayor. It would be a great asset to have the Obama library here. The emotional fix is in for it because of what he was and represented. But not a single inch of public property should be taken away from our citizens. If the University of Chicago wants to become a developer, there is other land they own they can put it on. Not on public land.”

Fioretti acknowledged that he supported former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s ill-fated plan to build a Children’s Museum in Grant Park. But he said, “I learned my lesson” from that mistake.

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