WASHINGTON — Months before the public was officially told that the South Side sites for the Obama library, museum and academic center would be in parks, City Hall and the Chicago Park District knew they were in play, according to emails obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The emails about efforts by the University of Chicago to win the Obama development were released by City Hall following a Sun-Times request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
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Those emails cover the period between April 2014 and the end of last year, a span when the Chicago-based Barack Obama Foundation solicited and accepted bids for the development.
By the time the U. of C. submitted its first round bid on June 16, all the sites the South Side school was proposing included parkland.
While the U. of C. did do community outreach, part of its strategy was holding off for as long as possible confirming to the press that they wanted President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle to consider putting their project in either Washington Park or Jackson Park or the South Shore Cultural Center.
Indeed, the sites were officially confirmed only after the foundation let it be known on Dec. 30 that the U. of C. bid was in trouble because it did not have a plan in place to obtain the parkland.
That triggered an acquisition process that reached a successful conclusion on Wednesday, when the City Council unanimously approved the transfer of parkland to the city — if the Obamas pick either Jackson Park or Washington Parks. The South Shore location had been dropped.
One of the emails foreshadowed what would be a rocky period for the U. of C. bid.
On Nov. 19, Susan Sher, the University of Chicago executive leading the school’s bid, got an email from Robbin Cohen, the foundation’s executive director — about a meeting she wanted to set up with foundation chair Marty Nesbitt.
“Are you available to meet with the Foundation and the City of Chicago on Dec. 5 at 9 a.m.? Marty and I spoke with David Spielfogel yesterday and set up this time to discuss City commitments related to the U. of Chicago sites that could be incorporated into a Development Agreement, as well as to address open issues related” to a memo of understanding with the Chicago Park District.
Spielfogel, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s senior adviser, is now on leave to work on the mayor’s re-election campaign. Spielfogel has been working closely with the U. of C. and the University of Illinois at Chicago, the other city finalist.
The Obamas are expected to announce a decision in a few weeks — after the April 7 mayoral runoff, in which Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, is in a tough race for a second term. All signs point to the Obamas picking Washington Park over sites pitched by the University of Illinois at Chicago, Columbia University in New York and the University of Hawaii, which could be in line for a satellite facility.
The emails shine a light on what was happening behind the scenes:
On April 6, 2014, Park District President Bryan Traubert — the husband of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker — emailed Sher, who is also the former chief of staff for Michelle Obama.
“Forgive the short notice, but are you available any time this Wednesday morning for a brief meeting? Mike Kelly (Chicago Park District Superintendent) and I would love to take you up on your offer of a meeting regarding the presidential library,” Traubert wrote.
He added a cheerful note at the end: “We’re in D.C. and later today we’ll be welcoming Kelly Welsh to town, and he starts as General Counsel at Commerce tomorrow! Penny is thrilled and we hope Kelly is as well.” Welsh was City Hall’s top lawyer under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Traubert announced at the end of a November board meeting that he would recuse himself from taking any votes on the library — though he never offered up specifically the parks at issue. Traubert and Pritzker are potential major donors to the foundation.
A few days later, on April 8, 2014, Sher emailed Spielfogel.
“I am meeting tomorrow with Traubert and Mike Kelly. Thanks for all your help,” Sher wrote.
Other items in the emails include:
- Emanuel is proposing that Hyde Park High School be the “primary site for school partnerships” if the library comes to the South Side.
- Emails show a big interest on the part of the city and U. of C. to present “Urban Agriculture” plans to the Obamas. That would seem to be of particular interest to Michelle Obama, who has made her White House vegetable garden a part of her “Let’s Move” healthy eating project.
- Last November, Spielfogel asked Metra Chief Martin Oberman to connect with the UIC and the U. of C. “regarding potential investments around their sites.”
Sher said in a statement, “We began talking to community members about specific sites and the possibility of parkland being used well over a year ago, during more than 100 meetings. We first told our Community Advisory Board on February 5, 2014, and we discussed it with many individuals and groups afterward, including Friends of the Park on October 1.
“During that time, multiple media reports referenced the sites. While we were still waiting to find out whether the Obama Foundation was interested in the sites, we confirmed the sites when community members asked about them.”
Emanuel spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier said in a statement that City Hall “has actively been working with UIC, U of C and all of the other original bidders to help work through the investments being made along side each proposed site. The Mayor’s goal is simple: to do everything we can to ensure each site submitted the strongest possible bid to bring the President’s library home to Chicago.”