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City Council approves Obama Presidential Center

Obama Center officials discuss plans for the project in Jackson Park

Obama Center museum director Louise Bernard, (from left) executive director Robbin Cohen, CEO David Simas and Vice President of Civic Engagement Michael Strautmanis met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board and unveiled the model for the center in January. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Plans to build the Obama Presidential Center still face a federal lawsuit and a separate federal review tied to Jackson Park’s place on the National Register of Historic Places, but they cleared a major hurdle on Wednesday.

For the second time in three years, the City Council approved a land transfer to make way for the three-building complex and granted sweeping zoning approvals tied to the massive project.

The vote was 47-to-1, prompting a burst of applause from exuberant aldermen.

Ald. David Moore (17th) cast the only no vote, concerned about where the city would get the $175 million for public infrastructure funds tied to the project.

“I’m proud of the vote. It should have been unanimous,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first White House chief of staff, said after calling his former boss to tell him the good news.

“This is going to be one of those decisions that lay the groundwork…for an institution that will pay dividends for decades and decades to come at so many different levels…We tilted the scales to the future in a very strong, affirmative way.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel took a congratulatory phone call from former President (and onetime boss) Barack Obama after the City Council approved a land transfer for the site of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. | Provided

As debate on the project got under way, it was clear aldermen were singing from the same hymnal. Several called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” that Chicago simply could not afford to reject.

“Who turns down a president? Who does that? … We cannot and should not be fighting this project for one of our [native] sons,” said South Side Ald. Michelle Harris (8th).

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), powerful chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, broke the mold by talking about the one that got away: the Lucas Museum “which would have been an economic behemoth and a tourist mecca attraction.”

“Los Angeles is breaking ground to reap the huge benefits that project would have brought to Chicago,” Burke said.

“There was a wise philosopher who once observed that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Of course, not everybody supported that futuristic project on lakefront land that remains a surface parking lot near Soldier Field.

“L.A. can take Darth Vader. … We’ll take Barack and Michelle any day of the week,” said Ald. Harry Osterman (48th).

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) referred to the concerns raised by the city’s commitment to find $175 million in public infrastructure funds by pointing to the millions of dollars that former Mayor Richard M. Daley spent to spruce up the Near West Side in the run-up to a flawless 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Pointing to the United Center’s role as a catalyst for development on the Near West Side, Burnett said he “can’t imagine what’s gonna happen on the South Side.” He only wishes he owned property there.

It was the second time around for the City Council. A 2015 land transfer had to be re-done because the design has changed and the boundaries have shifted to the north and east.

That gave community leaders another chance to demand that Emanuel and the City Council hold off until they first approve an ordinance codifying a community benefits agreement that former President Barack Obama has refused to give.

The Obama Library Community Benefit Agreement Coalition is specifically demanding an ordinance that would: set aside 30 percent of new and rehabbed housing for low income and working families; freeze property taxes for long time residents; and independently monitor hiring.

Even Chance the Rapper, who has confronted the Council before on spending priorities related to the building of a police and fire training facility, weighed in via Twitter, saying a benefits agreement was needed.

Wednesday’s vote commits the city to making $175 million in public infrastructure improvements needed to accommodate the center, even though the city has not yet secured those funds.

Pressed on where that money will come from, Emanuel reiterated that he’s counting on the state to do what it did for the Lincoln Library in Springfield, which also gets an annual $15 million subsidy toward operating costs.

“If you tabulate all of the things they’ve done for the Lincoln Library, total north of $200 million,” the mayor said, noting that the Obama’s are not asking for an operating subsidy.

“I don’t begrudge that. Been there. It’s a fabulous library. I recommend it to everybody. [But] the state has a role to play in helping us make this investment on the South Side of Chicago in ways that they have done for the Lincoln Library.”

The infrastructure money will be used to close Cornell Drive and Marquette Road, send southbound traffic from Cornell to Stony Island Avenue, widen Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island and install stoplights and barrier walls on Hayes Drive.

The Council also authorized transferring 19.3 acres from the city to the Chicago Park District; the Obama Foundation will lease it in perpetuity for a token $1.

Finally, aldermen approved a planned development for the project’s underlying zoning.

Even after the land transfer and road closures needed to create a campus-like setting for the three-building complex, City Hall and the Obama Foundation maintain there will be a net increase of 4.7 acres of parkland.

They’re counting the conversion of road closures to parkland as well as green roofs on the three new buildings — though those roofs are not open to public all the time.