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Emanuel introducing ordinance to use park land for Obama library

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he’d move “heaven and earth” to bring the Obama presidential library to Chicago. At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, he officially offered up parkland to help bolster the University of Chicago’s bid.

The U of C originally pitched three locations to the Obama foundation as part of their application for the library. That plan is in the running for the coveted library alongside the University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as Columbia University in New York City and The University of Hawaii.

The U of C’s bid is eying two sites controlled by the Chicago Park District: Washington Park and Jackson Park. But there was word earlier this month that the Barack Obama Foundation was hesitant. 

“Chicago was not in its best position we did not have our best foot forward because of questions raised by the foundation,” Emanuel said. “We can address those questions. So I’m gonna take the necessary steps to do that so we can gain the jobs, the economy and the cultural enrichment that would come with it.”

The step Emanuel took Wednesday would transfer that parkland to the city of Chicago, but he promises they’d replace whatever open space is used up by the library. For example, Emanuel’s ordinance suggests that the library would only take up five acres within the 21 and 20 acre Washington Park and Jackson Park, respectively. That means five acres of open space would be placed elsewhere in the neighborhood.

The proposal still needs to be voted on by both the City Council and the Park District Board. Over twenty aldermen have already signed on to Emanuel’s proposal. At two public hearings hosted by the park district last week, South Side residents came out in droves to share their opinions on the matter. While many said they wanted the library no matter where it was, some stressed the importance of preserving public park land.

Cassandra Francis, president of the nonprofit group Friends of the Parks, called the mayor’s proposal both “unprecedented” and “dangerous.”

“The attempt to confiscate this parkland for this use is something that has really galvanized people to focus on this issue. And not just related to real property, but other public trust assets and transfers of those out of the hands or the benefit of the public into things that would not necessarily prioritize public use,” Francis said.

Francis said she personally would be thrilled if President Obama chose to bring the library to Chicago, but says it doesn’t belong in a public park. 

Francis wouldn’t say for sure if Friends of the Parks or any national groups would take legal action over the mayor’s proposal.

Lauren Chooljian is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @laurenchooljian.

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