The Chicago City Council has given its stamp of approval to a plan to transfer ownership of up to 21 acres of public park land for the Barack Obama Library and Museum. The controversial move makes Chicago’s bid for the library even more tempting to the Barack Obama Foundation. A decision on which city (Chicago, New York, and Honolulu) will get the library is expected after the April 7 runoff election. After that, the foundation will select an architect. Actual construction won’t begin until the president leaves office on January 20, 2017.
In spite of the city council’s action today, the actual location of the library and museum is still unknown. The council approved the transfer of land from either Washington Park or Jackson Park.
Preservation group Friends of the Parks was aghast at the unanimous vote. The group’s president, Cassandra Francis, immediately e-mailed us a statement saying, “We find it problematic to support the selective amputation of a historic public park to build a massive building, especially when there is enough premium, non-park land in which to build them, including the 11-acre University of Chicago and CTA and City-owned site across the street from Washington Park, UIC’s proposed library sites and other vacant, well-located, city-controlled sites like the Michael Reese Hospital site.” You can read the organization’s full response below.
On the other side, Mayor Rahm Emanuel encouraged Friends of the Parks to drop its threat of a lawsuit to block the transfer, saying the group should be part of the “Chicago team.”
Friends of the Parks full response:
Over the past 40 years Friends of the Parks has worked diligently to advocate for parks and open spaces. While we strongly support the location of the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago, the transfer of public land sets a dangerous precedent of opportunistic planning, violation of public trust, and the pseudo engagement of local residents and stakeholders in community decisions. Friends of the Parks does not support the ordinance and intergovernmental agreement approved by Chicago City Council today that proposes the unparalleled transfer of historic public parkland from the Chicago Park District to the City of Chicago for use by a private institution.
We refuse to accept that the only place to put the Obama Presidential Library is in a decades-old, historic, public park. We find it problematic to support the selective amputation of a historic public park to build a massive building, especially when there is enough premium, non-park land in which to build them, including the 11-acre University of Chicago and, CTA and City-owned site across the street from Washington Park, UIC’s proposed library sites and other vacant, well-located, city-contolled sites like the Michael Reese Hospital site.
The community, and indeed the entire City and State which are beneficiaries of these public parks, deserve a significant amount of additional information before a decision of this magnitude and impact is made. The many diverse community groups proposing community benefits agreements to the Obama Presidential Library Foundation deserve feedback on the multitude of proposed terms in response to the placement of the library before all leverage is lost once the library site is selected.
The leadership of our City, should be asking many more questions in order to make an informed decision, looking at all alternatives to determine what is best for the future of our city. We should have the courage and fortitude to persuade these important institutions looking to locate in our city to utilize sites that bring more benefits, economic development and that solve existing deficiencies in our city without eroding public benefits and confiscating our public open spaces. We should work proactively to prepare attractive non-park sites to appropriately accommodate other institutions for the future.
The parks are irreplaceable assets worth fighting for and we defend this legacy fiercely, even through the courts when necessary. Friends of the Parks will be working with our local and national partners to consider legal options in the coming month as a site is selected amongst the finalists. Our lawsuit opposing the siting of the Lucas Museum on protected lakefront public open space just overcame a significant milestone showing credible standing on the basis of public trust doctrine to protect public open space for the benefit of all the residents of the State of Illinois. We have great concern that Chicago’s parkland will be available for future development in the future and will threaten the life and health of our neighborhoods.
We challenge the President and Mrs. Obama and our city leadership to think critically about the placement of an urban Presidential Library on confiscated historic parkland and we look forward to working together towards alternative non-park Chicago sites that are broadly supportable and which will bring communities together and protect our city’s greatest natural assets for the citizens of Chicago and for future generations.