WASHINGTON –– One of Chicago's most powerful conservation groups is casting doubt on findings released Wednesday by the Barack Obama Foundation that reveal broad support among residents for a plan to erect the Obama presidential library on public parkland.
Friends of the Parks, which in recent days has requested to speak to President Obama and was granted an audience with the foundation, told BuzzFeed News it is launching its own poll to gauge the level of community support for the University of Chicago's proposal to build Obama's presidential library on public parkland in the south side of the city. The nonprofit threatened to sue the Obamas if they decided to go through with the proposal.
"Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper and for the President to suggest his presidential library be a 'groundscraper' in a historic public park flies in the face of the policies he has espoused both as a community organizer in Chicago and during his presidency," Friends of the Parks President Cassandra Francis said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
Francis questioned the integrity of the Barack Obama Foundation's polling.
"By raising the fear that the President will pick a competing city if he does not get his 20 acres in a park-like 'majestic, campus setting,' as well as the confusion caused by how the questions are asked including as to whether you want the presidential library in the Washington Park-neighborhood or the Washington Park-park, have skewed the poll results," Francis said.
The polling research was conducted by prominent Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies –– a pollster for the Democratic National Committee and Obama for America in recent elections. The survey, which engaged over 600 South Side residents, found that just 24% of respondents who live near Washington and Jackson parks, two sites that are the focus of the University of Chicago's proposal, were opposed to the project.
Francis said many of the people she surveyed were unaware that not building on parkland was an option.
"I had 100% support signing of a petition when I asked the question, 'What if the presidential library was built on this piece of University of Chicago land instead of in the park so you could have the presidential library AND keep your park?'" she wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. "This has been for too long presented as an 'either/or' instead of a 'both/and" situation.'"
Sources within the Obama foundation that spoke with BuzzFeed News on Wednesday were not authorized to go on the record about the survey's findings. The foundation's effort to gauge public sentiment about the University of Chicago's proposal is already driving speculation that the South Side school is again the favorite to win the bid.
Three other sites are being considered: the University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Hawaii in Honolulu, and Columbia University in New York (which is the president's alma mater). The Obamas are expected to make a decision within the next weeks.
In December, the foundation told the Chicago Sun-Times that Columbia was the frontrunner to win the library bid due to doubt over whether the University of Chicago could acquire the parkland on which it proposed to build from the Chicago Public Park District. That's when Mayor Rahm Emanuel swooped in, coordinating efforts to open a dialogue between the Chicago Park District board and the community. He was successful, and on Feb. 11, the board voted to transfer the land to the city. The Chicago Plan Commission and the City Council are set to vote in March.
The foundation wouldn't characterize its level of concern over opposition to building on the parkland.
"I think that given that some people have raised issues about proposals to use park land, the Foundation felt it was important to hear directly from the surrounding community and find out what they think," a source close to the foundation told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday. "And of course as Cornell shared in his exploration of that, he found there is overwhelming excitement and community support about the possibility of putting the president's future library on the south side, as well as support for using park land.
"The Foundation has made clear from the beginning that it deeply cares about what the community thinks and wants to know that there is deep support," the source continued. "[University of Chicago's] proposal hinges on the use of park land, and it's important for the Foundation to know – independently – for the purposes of its evaluation that there is that strong support."
Friends of the Parks said it supports the Obama library coming to Chicago, but it has proposed an alternate site on a parcel of land owned by the University of Chicago. It also has lauded the less publicized proposal on the west side of the city submitted by the University of Illinois-Chicago.
"We are looking into commissioning our own poll next week to clarify and show the 11-acre alternative in the Washington Park-neighborhood which was not clearly presented," to those surveyed, Francis said. "This is the President's own, self-imposed deadline for the selection of the site for the Presidential Library."