Chicago City Council to vet deal today leasing 19.3 acres of lakefront park land for Obama Presidential Center for 10 cents a year for 99 years

The rush to build a personal monument to Barack Obama in Chicago hit a snag Monday, as the clearing of trees from a Chicago park to facilitate construction was halted.

Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times reported:

The city and Chicago Park District on Monday announced a halt to Obama Presidential Center-related construction in Jackson Park after moving ahead while crucial federal reviews of the project were still ongoing.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported in August that the park district was cutting down trees in Jackson Park despite a federal lawsuit, city and federal approvals pending, and a pledge from the Obama Foundation CEO to keep trees intact until the permitting process is complete.

Translation: The trees were being cut down in defiance of lawful permitting requirements, which apparently were felt to be for little people, not for the exalted ex-president.  The land being cleared of trees is supposed to be used to replace a track field in lakefront Jackson Park on land where the Obama Foundation wants to build the Obama monument.

But that halt to lawlessness hasn't stopped the Windy City's politicians rushing to hand over almost 20 acres of precious lakefront park land to the private foundation controlled by Barack and Michelle Obama.  The Obama Foundation ( promises to build a monument to his presidency, called the Obama Presidential Center (OPC).  It has to be called the OPC because it will not be an actual presidential library, under the control of the National Archives, but rather a privately controlled entity, free to focus on whatever pleases the 44th president.  Perhaps embarrassed by the book-free status, the Obama Foundation announced in May a plan to provide space for a branch of the Chicago Public Library, rent-free.  At the time (2015) that Chicago agreed to hand over the park land, an official presidential library – under control of the federal government – was planned.  Only later, in May 2017, was the switcheroo to a private monument announced.

What pleases former President Obama is a tall white tower that resembles a cenotaph monument and a complex that will include basketball courts and space for community organizers.


The Rahm Emanuel administration is offering a bargain price on a 99-year lease, as Lynn Sweet also reported:

City Hall officials involved in the negotiations with the Obama Presidential Foundation briefed reporters on Tuesday with the actual written legislation not available because it was still being finalized.

One of the ordinances includes the agreements between the foundation and the city, which includes the foundation paying the city $10 for the 99-year pact; the other ordinance clears the legal way to plow under Cornell Drive from 59th Street to Hayes Drive to be reconfigured as green space on the Obama campus.  The closing of Cornell has been controversial.

Not everyone in Chicago is on board with the plan:

Jackson Park Watch co-founder Margaret Schmid said, "The idea of leasing invaluable, irreplaceable public parkland to a private entity for $10 for 99 years is astounding in this era when public lands and natural resources are under attack in so many places.  Besides, Chicago's finances are extremely precarious.  Yes, this is symbolic, but symbolism is significant."

In addition to adding ten bucks to the coffers of the City of Chicago, the deal will impose certain conditions:

*The Obama Foundation must prove to the city that it has an endowment – either cash or pledges – to cover the construction costs, which Strautmanis estimated at $350 million. ...

*Upon completion, the city will own the land and the Obama Center buildings.

*The Center must offer free admission 52 days a year and keep the open space available to the public when the rest of Jackson Park is open.

*The legislation also sets minimum minority hiring and contracting benchmarks for the project; the Obama Foundation self-imposed guidelines are more robust.

*There will be no park replacement land outside of Jackson Park, though the possibility was once on the table.  The foundation and the city assert – and this is disputed by park preservationists – that digging up and planting over Cornell counts in making good on the replacement for the 19.3 acres.

For its part, the Obama Foundation has some demands, as reported earlier by Lynn Sweet, as revealed in:

... a document signed between the foundation and the park district on Feb. 26, 2018 and titled, "Donation Agreement Between the Chicago Park District and the Obama Foundation."

That document – I've read it – lays out in detail the connections, down to the insistence by the Obama Foundation for signage on the new field with the foundation name, control over the sign specs and placement and the guarantee of prominent mentions in park district publicity and press releases.

The agreement states, "The site selected for the OPC would necessitate the relocation of an existing multi-use artificial turf field with a running track."  The deal goes on to say "the Park District has designated an area within Jackson Park ... as land fit for the relocation."

On Feb. 27, the foundation flagged for reporters a Park District press release bragging about the deal, masking the payment as some kind of a gift.

Turns out, that release was misleading.  Park Superintendent Mike Kelly said in a statement, "we are grateful to the Obama Foundation for their donation."  It is a payment for something taken that needed replacing.  That's not a gift.

The projects are connected.  It's fiction to say they are not.

One potential factor in the rush to finalize this deal is that the OPC threatens to become an issue in the next wide open mayoral election, now that Rahm Emanuel has announced that he is not running for re-election.  I am sure that Obama and his friend and former chief of staff Rahm would not like to see pols running for mayor on a platform of halting the giveaway.

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