The Question Nobody Expected: What If Chicago Doesn't Get Obama's Presidential Library?

Most assumed the University of Chicago would get Obama's library — but secret plans and the intention to build on public parkland have imperiled the effort. Rahm Emanuel is working the lines at the last minute.

CHICAGO — The University of Chicago's bid to host Barack Obama's presidential library has been in serious trouble.

The school, situated plop down in the middle of the city's picturesque South Side, has faced significant scrutiny from public officials, library foundation advisers, and more. The university has never quite been transparent with its plans — even as it proposed the foundation build on acres and acres of public parkland that belong to taxpayers.

Publicly, the University of Chicago says it has been working with city officials all along. "Over the past year we have been working to ensure the South Side effort is a collaborative one that reflects input from the local community," Derek Douglas, the University of Chicago's vice president of civic engagement, said at public hearings held a week ago. "We have talked with hundreds of individuals and groups in more than 150 meetings." But the message from the Obama foundation overseeing the site selection process has been clear: It's time to open things up.

Unlike a bid by Columbia University in New York, the heart of the issue remains that the school is proposing building the library on 20 acres of land it does not own. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, under a vow "to move heaven and earth to make this happen," on Wednesday introduced an ordinance for the transfer of 20 acres of parkland to from the park district to the city. The contract would only go into effect if the foundation chose one of the two park sites.

Presidential libraries are massive undertakings of financial and political resources — all meant to first construct and then guard a president's legacy, and President Obama's political identity and career began in Chicago.

What is possible now is a question no one here had ever given much thought about: What if Barack Obama's presidential library isn't in Chicago?

Throughout the process, the foundation has reiterated that no decision on where to build has been made. And while it has expressed satisfaction with the University of Chicago's steps toward transparency and community involvement, some wonder if the moves have come too late to save the school's bid.

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said that some in the White House remain anxious over the city's ability to bring both sides to the table.

"I'm looking for a compromise where they can dedicate some parkland for this library," he said Tuesday night after the State of the Union address, prior to Emanuel's Wednesday announcement. "I think it's a legitimate dedication of the land and I know the mayor is working on it."

One compromise, he said, is the prospect that the city might expand parkland elsewhere.

"I don't know what it'll take," Durbin said. "I've talked to the principals involved in this and they're moving toward a solution but I've told them not to discount the New York application. I think they need to take it seriously. I've heard that a lot of people in the White House are anxious to see Chicago come through with a solid application. They want to put in Chicago. And we've got some homework to do."

The use of public park land — and the failure to secure its usage before the bid was submitted — goes beyond the normal bid process back-and-forth, it's touched off a sharp public debate in Chicago, and become a hot source of concern for Emanuel, himself a former close adviser to the president.

Hundreds attended two events last week meant to showcase support for the project this week on the South Side. Supporters were out, but detractors were, too.

At the first public hearing, a university spokesman sheepishly handed out to media a statement by Susan Sher, the former chief of staff to Michelle Obama and now senior adviser to the university of Chicago president. "The overwhelming turnout and passion from hundreds of library bid supporters at Tuesday's hearing demonstrate that the people who live and work here want the Obama Presidential Library brought home to Chicago's South Side," it read.

Meanwhile, a young woman, Veronica Morris-Moore, was riling up the crowd. The library would raise the profile of the university, she said, at the expense of space that belonged to the public.

"You as a black person ask yourself: Why would you give the first black president's presidential library [land to build] to an institution that has not at all shown any concern, or care, or a priority for your life?" she said to loud applause.

The crowd, mostly black Chicagoans and many of them elderly, longtime citizens of the South Side came out in what appeared to be 50-50 support.

A source close to Emanuel's administration said both the mayor's office and the University of Chicago are sensitive to the concerns over a multi-year, multi-million-dollar project of this magnitude on the South Side parkland, which they described as "sacrosanct" in Chicago — part of what makes the city so great.

But part of the case Emanuel will make, the source said, is that the Obamas are deserving of the finest parcels of open land the city has to offer for the building and campus the Obama foundation covets.

The land transfer must be approved by the park district board and the city council, but Emanuel is facilitating the process as his campaign sleepwalks to the Feb. 24 mayoral election he's expected to win handily.

That hasn't kept his opponents from attacking him on the issue. "We've got a compliant city council that will react in such a way that whatever the mayor wants, he will get. And unfortunately nobody talked to anybody until the 11th hour and the fifty-ninth minute about what's happened. It means people's voices aren't heard. It really shows the lack of respect the Rahm administration has for the people of Chicago," said Alderman Bob Fioretti, an opponent in the Feb. 24 mayoral election.

This goes beyond an election, though: Delivering the library is a political must for the legacy of the mayor, who was the president's first chief of staff. A source close to the Emanuel administration said his presence would have been a distraction at the hearings last week.

According to the source, Obama and Emanuel are in talks regarding how the president might assist Emanuel's campaign in the coming weeks, but it's unclear whether the president will visit, and whether his support will take the form of fundraising or a campaign event.

Cassandra J. Francis, president and CEO of Friends of the Parks, a nonprofit, said Emanuel's inability, at least in the beginning, to give Chicago the best chance to secure the library has not only boosted the New York bid by Columbia University, but also undermined what should have been a collaborative process from the at least three months ago.

"The community should have been involved from the beginning," Francis said. "This coming to Chicago could have been something that would have bridged communities. If the decision is going to be made to put it on one of these sites, I think the momentum of that decision is going to be something that will be very difficult to stop. It's going to put the community in negotiating mode."

A portion of the testimony surrounding the University of Chicago's bid had to do with a longstanding wish by some members of the community that the school build a trauma center; one group staged a die-in before the first public hearing on Jan. 13.

In this context, opponents say that the University of Chicago doesn't deserve the community's trust.

Neither the foundation or the University of Chicago commented on opposition to the parkland. But Sher, in an interview with BuzzFeed News, described the hearings as the "very, very beginning" of a long process, allowing plenty of time for reasonable requests like a formal community benefits agreement to be worked on.

Either way, a decision is imminent. The Chicago Sun-Times reported Park District board is will decide on the the intergovernmental agreement on Feb. 11, and that the City Council, which is expected to vote yes, won't meet again until March 18.

Quietly, the foundation has downplayed that timing would be an issue.

"The president can pick whatever site he wants in the city of Chicago. But, he cannot be in a position to pick New York over Chicago," Emanuel said Wednesday. "This is a once-in a lifetime. I'm not waiting for another President from Chicago to get elected to then pick Chicago," the mayor said.

"I will not let this opportunity slip through Chicago's fingers and allow New York to out-do us in getting the presidential library. When questions were raised by the foundation, I wanted to move exponentially."

Skip to footer