The Chicago Park District has put a halt to preparations being made for the Obama Presidential Library until after a federal court reviews a lawsuit filed by Chicago residents, and federal agencies assess the transfer of historic public land to a private entity.
But in the meantime, permits and agreements filed by Chicago city officials, and with the Chicago Department of Transportation, reveal a sweetheart rent deal that any Chicago renter (or landlord) would certainly envy: the Obama Foundation will pay a mere $10 for a 99-year lease on what is supposed to be a public park.
The Chicago Park District had begun felling trees on land destined to become part of the Obama Library complex, but those preparations ground to a halt Monday after the Chicago Department of Transportation refused to grant a permit that would have allowed the Park District to move utility lines running through the site. CDOT delayed a decision on the matter until after the federal lawsuit and federal assessments have been resolved.
Hearings on the lawsuit, which claims the Obama Library received unprecedented and potentially illegal assistance from the state of Illinois and the city of Chicago, start Thursday. Plaintiffs claim that the Library is being granted part of historic Jackson Park — a huge public green space designed by Frederick Olmsted (the same man who designed New York City's Cental Park) and dedicated for the people of Chicago's recreational use. They also say that plans to move two major arteries that currently run across Jackson Park will harm economic growth and isolate residents of Chicago's south side.
Construction also halted on a new athletic field — a project the city claims has no connection to the Obama Library complex. The Chicago Sun-Times reports the city might have misled residents: the Obama Foundation appears to have granted more than $2 million to the city for the new athletic field because the old one will need to be demolished to make room for Obama's massive complex.
The permitting and construction process became even stranger on Wednesday, when the Sun-Times reported that the City Council was working on a bill that would grant the Obama Library a century-long lease on what is, essentially, public land, for a mere $10, even though the Foundation can afford much more — and Chicago is desperately in need of the money.
"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 Sun-Times says. That's down from the $1-per-year rental fee proposed earlier in the process.
In return, the Obama Foundation must pledge to cover the $350 million in expected construction costs for the Library, protecting Chicago taxpayers (the Foundation has already received nearly $220 million in construction grants from the State of Illinois).
One of the Library's top critics called the deal infuriating.
"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," the head of Jackson Park Watch told local media. "Besides, Chicago’s finances are extremely precarious. Yes, this is symbolic, but symbolism is significant.”
Other Chicago museums are located on public property, but those museums have agreements with the city of Chicago in perpetuity.
The City Council is expected to read and vote on the rental agreement Thursday.