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Park District new Obama library player: U of C sites on park land

WASHINGTON — The three sites the University of Chicago is proposing for the Obama Presidential Library include Chicago Park District land, and board President Bryan Traubert, the husband of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, is recusing himself from the process because of his personal, philanthropic and professional interests.

With Traubert out of the picture, the board’s vice president, Avis LaVelle will oversee any negotiations. In an interview on Monday, LaVelle told me she would seek public input over the matter of giving up Chicago park land, no matter how worthy the cause.

OPINION

The four finalists for the library — the U. of C., the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Hawaii and Columbia University — face a Dec. 11 deadline for submitting bids to the Chicago-based Barack Obama Foundation. The bids must include details on how each site would be developed.

The U. of C. — which I have always seen as the frontrunner — has never publically or officially offered or confirmed, even to people and groups whose support they seek, the proposed sites near its Hyde Park campus it is pitching to the foundation. The final decisions are up to President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle and are expected in early 2015.

Other sources have identified the U. of C. sites:

Near Hyde Park High School, at 6220 S. Stony Island and Jackson Park; the area near 55th and King Drive and Washington Park; and one of the crown jewels of the park system, the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Drive, on the Lake Michigan shore.

Obama may not have made it to the White House without the crucial fundraising help of billionaire Pritzker. It’s hard to imagine that the charitable Traubert and Pritzker would not be donating millions of dollars to the project, especially because Pritzker’s public legacy is linked to Obama’s.

At the Nov. 12 board meeting, Traubert told the commissioners about his recusal.

Traubert said in his statement, “As most of you are aware, Chicago is a finalist in the selection process as the future home of the Obama Presidential Museum and Library.

“Among the Chicago sites that are of interest to the group that’s looking at this are three sites that are located on Chicago Park District property.

“Because this opportunity for the city also creates an intersection of my personal, my philanthropic and my professional interests, I have conflicts with this and so I am disclosing that I will personally not take any formal action in my capacity as President of the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners during the site selection process and further, I am recusing myself from any and all formal discussions representing the Chicago Park District related to the site selection for a potential presidential library, and I am relinquishing those responsibilities to Vice President LaVelle.

“Of course, if there is ever a Board vote on this matter I will recuse myself from that vote,” Traubert said.

LaVelle told me from her end, “It is clear there will have to be a process.” If park district land is recommended, “There will have to be a deliberative process that allows for full discussion and input from all stakeholders.”

Susan Sher, the U. of C. executive who is overseeing the Obama presidential library bid, told me on Monday she has talked with Chicago Park District General Supt. and CEO Michael Kelly.

Sher said the U. of C. intent is to be “park positive.”

“Of course there will be a public process,” Sher said. “But our discussions have been about restoring park lands” and making sure the “parks are more beautiful and restored.”

Sher did not have specifics about what the U. of C. would pledge. Somehow, the lost acreage would be made up. Sher said there would be “no decrease and hopefully an increase in park land that is accessible to the public.”