March was supposed to be the month Chicagoans could stop debating whether or not they would get the Barack Obama Presidential Library and its accompanying prestige, economic development potential, and validation from the local political hero made good. Well, local politics have complicated that (arbitrary) timeline: With Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, locked in a runoff election against Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, the president’s foundation will delay its decision “in a bid to avoid politicizing his legacy project,” according to unnamed sources cited by the Associated Press.
To local observers, however, the library is already drenched in politics. Compounding the larger “Second City” anxieties of netting the project in the first place (New York City’s Columbia University is vying to host the Obamas, as is the President’s birth state of Hawaii), Mayor Emanuel may have delivered too literally on his promise to “move heaven and earth” in pursuit of the library. Rahm pushed a plan through City Council that would hand over more than 20 acres of Washington Park if the Barack Obama Foundation chooses a bid from the University of Chicago that would host Obama’s library on land including two historic parks that surround its South Side campus. To no one’s surprise, in March the plan sailed through the Chicago Park District board, the members of which are appointed by the mayor.
The University of Chicago is offering sites, including 21 acres of Washington Park or 20 acres of Jackson Park, which together comprise the lakefront South Park System designed in 1871 by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. and his partner Calvert Vaux.
The mayor’s eagerness to sacrifice public parkland was not without its critics. Writing for Landscape Architecture Magazine, Brad McKee observed: “The opposition to the idea has been fierce but surprisingly isolated among die-hard parks advocates such as the Friends of the Parks group in Chicago and, nationally, the Cultural Landscape Foundation.” They worried, McKee continued, that “If any parkland, let alone Olmsted and Vaux territory, can be seized so easily for rank political reasons, then those of us who consider parks sacrosanct have far bigger worries than just these 20 or so acres.”
Concern on the South Side has taken a slightly different tack. Polls show a milder distaste—if that—for trading 19th century oak groves for a piece of 21st century history. Critics derided the polls as reinforcing a false choice between cannibalizing parkland for a library or getting no library at all. It’s hard to know if that’s the case. The public knows little of any behind-the-scenes discussions about siting the library, or even regarding the University of Chicago’s actual proposal. Details have come in whispers or not at all, exacerbating Emanuel’s perennial problem with optics (or process); as with the Lucas Museum, Old Prentice Women’s Hospital, and many other issues, controversial plans are railroaded through public procedures with an air of inevitability.
And so the discussion has turned in some circles to, “What can we get in return?” Paula Robinson, president of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, disapproves of the parkland proposal, but she said the time to fight it has passed. Instead she would rather see opposition coalesce around a demand for more park space elsewhere. “It’s a different party now,” she said. “Do you want to fight or do you want to win?” Instead of one-to-one replacement of green space, as the city has proposed, why not two to one? Or more? Parkland is not created equal, and historic public spaces are worth more than the tally of their acreage.
Chicago has ample vacant land to host the library without bleeding off green space from historic parks. But if the nation’s first truly urban presidential library still insists Chicago tarnish this gem of landscape architecture, one hopes the city makes a gift of new park space proportionate with the extraordinary circumstances it now claims necessitate this exceptional land transfer. It’s too late for the Obama Foundation to avoid politicizing the president’s library. But the project’s legacy for public space is still unwritten.