Roadblocks Hampering Chicago's Obama Presidential Library Bids

By Chuck Sudo in News on Jan 5, 2015 4:40PM

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Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

You may have heard about the roadblocks hampering Chicago’s bids for the Obama Presidential Library and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts to salvage them. The mayor’s answer to the question may not be Solomonic in nature.

Both the University of Chicago and University of Illinois Chicago are vying to bring the Obama Presidential Library to Chicago, with UIC’s bid considered a long shot at best. The problem with U of C’s proposal is they don’t own any of the land on the proposed sites, which include possible Park District property. And the Barack Obama Foundation has said that maybe wanting to own the land should be a part of the proposal.

That’s no problem in Emanuel’s view. The mayor is set to “announce a public process for land acquisition in the coming days.” Emanuel is like Nike: just do it.

Not much else is known about U of C’s super-secretive bid for the Obama Library but Emanuel’s swooping in to save it and bring the library to Obama’s political home base raises questions about transparency and who has the right to determine how public land is developed. Emanuel may announce a “public process” but will it be a transparent one? One thing we’ve learned about the Emanuel administration these past three-plus years is Emanuel’s words and deeds on the subject of transparency don’t always dovetail together. Public-private initiatives such as the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, World Business Chicago and Choose Chicago (the city’s tourism office) are established as nonprofit organizations, meaning they’re shielded from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Local media outlets have fought the mayor’s press team over heavily redacted files released under FOIA requests and other advancements, such as making police misconduct files public, were done so only after exhaustive legal battles.

Transparency in government was the one concrete campaign promise Emanuel made in his 2011 mayoral campaign that he’s broken. And now he’s going to announce a process that seems like a fait accompli to help land his former boss’ library in Chicago. The main fear here is that Emanuel’s “public” process to acquire land for U of C’s bid will be as secretive as the university’s proposal.

Then there’s the issue of who determines how public land is developed. If Emanuel’s process involves acquiring Park District land for U of C’s library bid it will almost certainly run into afoul of advocacy groups like Friends of the Parks, who have already told the Obama Foundation they would oppose any Chicago bid involving Park District property. Coincidentally, this is also the basic argument FOTP is using in their lawsuit against the city over the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art’s proposed lakefront home. FOTP, citing Public Trust Doctrine, argues the State of Illinois has final say over lakefront development. If Emanuel decides to use Park District property to bolster U of C’s bid, expect FOTP to defend its mission to “preserve, protect, improve and promote the use of parks and open spaces throughout the Chicago area for the enjoyment of all residents and visitors.”

This could get ugly, folks.