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Rushed Obama library meetings didn’t have to be this way

WASHINGTON — Hearings on using Washington or Jackson parks for the Obama Presidential library and museum take place Tuesday and Wednesday, and if it seems dealing with this important public policy matter is rushed – well, it did not have to be this way.

I’m told that City Hall is contemplating creating some kind of a task force or a group to oversee whatever promises the University of Chicago makes for the parks land deal, which is crucial to their bid.

That group should be given some enforcement authority – this is a massive project and it will be years in the making. Pledges should not be allowed to be forgotten.

The Tuesday hearing is 6 pm at the Hyde Park Academy High School, 6220 South Stony Island Ave. The Wednesday hearing is noon at the Washington Park Field House, 5531 S. Martin Luther King Dr.

The U. of C. should have disclosed its proposals to site the Obama presidential library and museum on Chicago Park District lands around Sept. 15, when the Obama Foundation named the school a finalist for the project.

But the school didn’t even let the public know it needed parkland when the bid was filed Dec. 11.

And the complacent park district board declined to take the lead back in November – when Park District President Bryan Traubert (the husband of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker), who was obviously briefed on the sites, recused himself  from the process. I watched a video of the park district November meeting, and Traubert and board vice president Avis LaVelle both agreed  that the matter was a “hot potato.”

So the Chicago Park District knew months ago this could be controversial. City Hall knew. The Chicago-based Obama Foundation knew.

And last month, a source close to the foundation — whose board members and consultants are not political dummies — said the U. of C. bid was in jeopardy because there was no process in place to acquire building rights to the public parkland.

That got Mayor Rahm Emanuel involved, and forced the U. of C. last week to release its plan for 21 acres at Jackson Park and 22 acres at Washington Park.

The Washington Park site, I have learned, is preferred by the U. of C.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle will decide between the U. of C., Columbia University, the University of Illinois/Chicago and the University of Hawaii (which the foundation is aiming to make a satellite center.)

Derek Douglas, the U. of C.’s vice president for civic engagement – who was  special assistant for urban affairs to President  Obama —  will testify. The U. of C. is also bringing Philip Enquist, from SOM, the  architecture and planning firm.

Advocacy group Friends of the Parks opposes the use of park lands for the project. FOP President Cassandra Francis is zeroing in on the foundation’s demand that the city, not the park district, be handed control of the land.

“You just can’t transfer land that is dedicated to the public,” she told me.

“It is unprecedented to transfer ownership of dedicated parkland to another public agency or private interest, particularly a site of this historic significance and magnitude.”