About 1,000 South Siders, preservationists and others packed the second of two spirited Chicago Park District hearings Wednesday afternoon to discuss the possible use of parkland for the Barack Obama presidential library. Progress Illinois was there for the meeting.
Should Chicago parkland on the South Side be offered for two potential sites proposed by the University of Chicago for the Barack Obama presidential library and museum?
About 1,000 South Siders, preservationists and others packed the second of two spirited Chicago Park District hearings Wednesday afternoon to voice their opinions on that question. The three-hour, standing-room only meeting was held at the Washington Park Field House, 5531 S. Martin Luther King Dr.
As part of the U of C's bid for the Obama library, which includes two proposed locations, the university wants to use about 20 acres of land at either Jackson or Washington parks for the attraction.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called for a "public process" to discuss the possibility of transferring ownership of park district land after news surfaced that Obama library officials had concerns with U of C's bid, specifically that the university did not own all of the property that it was pitching for the sites. Avis LaVelle, vice president of the Chicago Park District's board of commissioners, told the crowd that no board vote has been scheduled to consider a land transfer related to the U of C proposals.
While meeting attendees overwhelmingly supported having the Obama library housed in Chicago -- with one audience member saying it "would be be a slap in the face if any city other than the city of Chicago gets this endorsement" -- a number of people raised concerns about providing South Side parkland for the project, especially when there is vacant land located elsewhere in the area.
Hyde Park resident Frances VanDervoort with the Washington Park Conservancy said her group "longs for President Obama's library and museum to be built on Chicago's South Side."
"But precious green space must not be used for it," she stressed.
South Sider Ghian Foreman disagreed, saying the use of some park space for either proposed locations would enhance the parks.
"I was asked by the news earlier today: What do I think about taking away park space? I don't think of it as taking away park space. I think of it as adding to park space," he stressed.
Friends of the Parks President Cassandra Francis said her group opposes turning over any parkland for the library, saying such a move could set a "dangerous precedent."
"People have asked me if we are going to be the ones who are blamed if (the library) does not come to Chicago. We want it to come to Chicago," Francis said in an interview with Progress Illinois. "However, the shortsighted proposals from the University of Chicago and the city of Chicago that have only put on the South Side such controversial sites that impact public park space, it's a huge disappointment to me as a Chicagoan."
Francis said Friends of the Park questions the legality of transfering park district-controlled land to the city for the potential sites.
"The main thing is this is unprecedented," she said. "Throughout the country, organizations are looking at this specifically because the dangerous precedent that we'll set. We don't know how we're going to respond to this until we understand how this city anticipates transferring the land, but we are not sure that it is legal."
Many attendees, however, said the positive neighborhood, economic and other impacts expected to come with the attraction would outweigh any downside of using parkland.
"By positioning the library on Chicago Park District land, we allow communities to remain intact; preventing the displacement and separation of these historic neighborhoods," said Yolanda Daniel, board member of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago. "Building on park district land would allow the continued development of the limited available commercial real estate within the community, generating tax revenue for the city and providing much needed jobs in these areas. The Obama presidential library will not only help to economically sustain the community, but it will increase the property values for the residents of Washington and Jackson Parks."
Chicago Urban League's CEO and President Andrea Zopp said her group backs both U of C proposals, citing the economic opportunities and jobs the library will bring.
"We need to have this library. It makes sense," stressed Zopp, also a Chicago Board of Education member.
The four South Side council members representing areas near the U of C's proposed library sites -- Alds. Pat Dowell (3rd), Will Burns (4th), Leslie Hairston (5th) and Willie Cochran (20th) -- have endorsed the university's plans that include park district property. Dowell and Burns attended Tuesday's meeting along with Ald. Joe Moore (49th).
"I believe a South Side location, and specifically the Washington Park site, is the best option," Dowell said. "And we should just get ready, roll up our sleeves, do the work and make it work."
In a posting on its website last week detailing information on its two proposed library sites, U of C said it recommends that "the final plan for the library should be park-positive," meaning that "the community should gain access to more usable parkland from this process than the presidential library would occupy."
"The Washington Park location would permit the development of additional green space along Garfield Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and the potential for other open space projects in the neighborhood near the park," the post adds. "Similar opportunities for new green space exist along 63rd Street and sites near the Woodlawn location."
On Tuesday, Emanuel ducked questions about whether U of C will be forced to replace any lost acres.
Meanwhile, the first public hearing on the parkland matter, held Tuesday night at Hyde Park Academy High School, also drew hundreds of people, including Chicago mayoral candidates Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and businessman Willie Wilson.
Activists pushing for U of C to open a South Side adult trauma center also protested at Tuesday night's meeting.
"We are sending the message that the U of C does not deserve the honor of the Obama library until they recognize the value of black lives by providing trauma care on the South Side," Veronica Morris-Moore with Trauma Care Coalition said in a statement before last night's event. "The U of C is proposing massive redevelopment of Woodlawn and Washington Park, but they are still failing to respond to basic community demands."
Fioretti, who is opposed to using parkland for the project, also touched on the trauma center issue in a statement released before Tuesday's hearing, which said in part:
Our public spaces are not for sale and should be off limits to development. Rahm's willingness to turn our open spaces into spaceship parking and private playgrounds for the rich without public input shows he's not interested in what the people of Chicago want. There are plenty of spaces in many communities across the City that could have been used.
This is another example of the lack of meaningful engagement with the public on issues that affect the city as a whole. A mayor with a better sense of priorities and respect for his constituents would be leading the way on a comprehensive look at how Hyde Park could incorporate the Obama museum, a badly needed trauma center and other community priorities without seizing public land.
'Rahm's idea of transparency seems to be having a hearing at the 11th hour when the decision is all but made.
Garcia also issued a statement before the event, saying he embraces "the effort to bring the Obama presidential library to Chicago" but believes that "this endeavor does not need to be linked to a private raid on the people's limited public assets."
"The people of Chicago are rightly opposed to encroachment on their public parklands," the Cook County commissioner added. "Yet, Mayor Emanuel wants to allow a private institution to confiscate land they do not own: people's land. This proposal was created behind closed doors under a veil of secrecy with no formal input from either park advocates or the public. Now, the mayor is collaborating with its proponents to push this land grab -- just as he supports a land grab for his friend George Lucas on Chicago's public lakefront."
The University of Illinois at Chicago, New York's Columbia University and the University of Hawaii are also vying for the Obama library.