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Emanuel defends decision to replace only 5 acres of park taken for Obama library

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday defended his decision to replace only 5 of the 21 acres of South Side parkland he wants to take for the Obama Presidential Library, if the Obamas choose either Washington Park or Jackson Park.

“Given that the building will deal with 4-to-5 acres, we will replace that, acre-for-acre, and make the open space whole. . . . It’s specific to the building and I think that’s the right way to go,” the mayor said after introducing the land transfer at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

But the Obamas want a campus surrounding their presidential library and museum. Taking up to 20 acres in Jackson Park and 21 acres in Washington Park — both storied parks designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted — would help to create that campus feel.

While the land surrounding the building would technically remain “open,” it would undoubtedly have some restrictions. For example, you couldn’t plop down a barbecue or a baseball diamond.

Still, Emanuel said he has no qualms about replacing only the 5 acres where the library building sits.

“We’re not taking it out. It’s still gonna be open land. We’re addressing the concerns [about] where the building is, and that’s the right way to approach it,”  the mayor said.

“It’s a cultural and educational treasure for the city. And I do think we can address the issues specifically related to the 5 acres and make that whole so there’s no net loss of open space.”

Friends of the Parks President Cassandra Francis said no amount of replacement parkland — be it 5 acres or 21 acres — would be enough to justify carving up two parks that are on the National Register of Historic Places.

“This concept of swapping land is not an option. These are historical assets. Every portion of these parks is integral to their design and function,” Francis said.

Francis said she’s “shocked” that the Washington Park community has not demanded that the Obama library be built on an 11-acre parcel west of Martin Luther King Drive — a piece of land already owned by the University of Chicago.

Friends of the Parks already has filed a lawsuit to stop Emanuel from transferring 17 acres of lakefront parkland to movie mogul George Lucas to build an interactive museum. Asked if a similar lawsuit was in the works to stop the Obama library from being built on South Side parkland, Francis would only say she is “working on this with a large number of organizations” nationwide devoted to preserving open space.

“There is a really broad national platform, given this transfer of land. People in organizations nationally are looking at this very closely, given the dangerous precedent of transferring Park District-owned land to a municipality or private entity. There are much greater controls and protections on Park District-owned land than on land controlled by municipalities,” she said.

To justify the decision to replace only the 5 acres where the library building would sit, Emanuel talked once again about the 750 acres of open space he has already created. Roughly 400 of that is nature preserve.

He even harkened back to one of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s darkest hours: the infamous midnight destruction of Meigs Field that allowed giant bulldozers operating under the cloak of darkness to carve giant X’s into the lakefront airport’s only runway.

The mayor resurrected the ghost of Meigs after a reporter wondered about the precedent of taking 21 acres of South Side parkland on the heels of his decision to give Lucas 17 acres.

“They’re all separate [decisions]. The presidential library is a unique economic and job creator and a unique once-in-a-lifetime cultural and education treasure for Chicago and there’s a way to address that issue as it relates to the 5 acres. We can create that open land. We’ve already done 750 and we can create that. So there’s no net loss,” he said.

“As it relates to the Lucas museum, if you go back and wind the clock back, four years ago, there was a closed airport with a bunch of X’s . . . and a parking lot. What we’re now proposing to do and well on our way . . . is there’s 50 acres of open land right there on the lake consistent with the original proposal going back almost 90 years. So we are adding acreage.”

Two South Side aldermen whose wards include Washington Park were OK with the mayor’s limited promise.

“If the building is only gonna be sitting on 5 acres and the rest of the space is gonna be open space, then it makes sense to replace the 5 acres,” said Ald. Will Burns (4th).

What about the other 16 acres and the limitations that would undoubtedly be placed on that land used to create a library campus?

“You can’t do anything you damn well please on open space now in the parks. There are limits on when you can barbecue. There are limits on alcohol. . . . The idea is, that would be preserved for open space and there would be improvements to that open space.”

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) agreed that 5 acres of replacement parkland is enough, adding, “The rest of the green space is open space.”

The land transfer ordinance was introduced to satisfy “major concerns” raised by the Obama foundation about the bids by the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago at the end of last year.

The foundation jolted the U. of C. by raising the prospect that the lack of a plan to acquire rights to a site jeopardized its bid. The issue at UIC was resolved once new leaders pledged to deliver on the bid if the West Side school was selected.

On Wednesday, Emanuel vowed to “move heaven and earth” to make certain that New York doesn’t move ahead of Chicago in the Obama library sweepstakes.

But one thing he apparently will not do is speed up the timetable for the City Council to approve the $1 land transfer.

While the Chicago Park District board is expected to approve the intergovernmental agreement on Feb. 11, the City Council won’t meet again until March 18.

That’s cutting it close. The Obama Foundation hopes to announce its decision by the end of March.

“The president can pick whatever site he wants in the city of Chicago. But he cannot be in a position to pick New York over Chicago. This is a once in a lifetime. I’m not waiting for another president from Chicago to get elected to then pick Chicago,” the mayor said.

“I will not let this opportunity slip through Chicago’s fingers and allow New York to out-do us in getting the presidential library. When questions were raised by the foundation, I wanted to move exponentially.”