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Chicago’s effort to get Obama library draws suspicions

January 23, 2015

CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago’s rush to secure space in a public park for Barack Obama’s presidential library has unleashed a tussle that embodies the political culture of the president’s adopted hometown — loud, contentious and full of suspicions about backroom deals and personal politics.

Most Chicagoans would be shocked if Obama didn’t bring his library to the city where his political career began. But it has been equally shocking to some that the University of Chicago proposed building it on park land that the school did not control and had not secured until the Obama Foundation recently raised concerns.

Faced with an approaching deadline for the Obamas to make a decision, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, this week proposed an ordinance that would allow the library to be built on the land if the foundation chooses the University of Chicago proposal over rival bids by the University of Illinois-Chicago, Columbia University in New York and the University of Hawaii.

The strong ties between City Hall, the Obama administration and the school where the president once taught and his wife once worked have raised suspicions that the selection has long been a done deal.

At the center of the issue are two specks of land — just 20 acres (8 hectares) in either Washington Park or Jackson Park, which together encompass nearly 1,000 acres (400 hectares) on the city’s South Side. But, as Star Wars’ creator George Lucas learned after he proposed building a museum on the lakefront, this city has cherished and protected its open space a lot longer than it’s been bragging about Obama. Lucas’ project triggered a legal war that is now in federal court.

Opponents also worry about opening the door for more land acquisitions that could chop away at precious park district space in the future.

“This is a slippery slope that none of us can go down because this is Chicago, and we all know how Chicago works,” said Delmarie Cobb, a political consultant and frequent critic of Emanuel who opposes using park land for the library.

The mayor wants — and needs — the library. He’s up for re-election next month, and his support on the predominantly black South Side has wavered amid doubts that he hasn’t done enough to improve education and reduce crime. The library would be an economic and cultural boon to the area.

Further, if Emanuel’s friend and former boss chooses another city — especially New York — it could be Emanuel’s greatest political embarrassment.

The mayor clearly understands the stakes.

“It is essential that the president’s library is here in the city of Chicago and not in New York, and I will do what is necessary ... to move heaven and earth to make this happen,” he told reporters this week.

Some wonder if he and the university deliberately waited until the last minute to create a crisis that would limit the time for public comment and give the mayor a chance to come to the “rescue,” as one newspaper headline put it.

For his part, Emanuel said he is simply reacting to recent reports that the foundation had reservations about the university’s bid. The university dismisses any suggestion that it was involved in any effort to manipulate the process.

Cassandra Francis, president of Chicago’s Friends of the Parks, contends that supporters of the bid have done a masterful job of framing the debate in their favor. When opponents suggest that the university look for another site, she said, the other side casts it as opposition to a project that would attract millions of dollars in development and new jobs and create a symbol of hope to children who live there.

“I have this feeling,” she said, “like they are saying that you have to pick trees or children.”

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