History books of the future might not mention this, but the City Council meeting that gave the Obama Presidential Center final permission to build in Jackson Park included votes by Freddy Krueger, Prince, and a trio of giant animal heads.
It was October 31, and the aldermen were into it: Ray Lopez of the 15th Ward was the scar-faced, claw-handed Krueger; Leslie Hairston (Fifth) sported Prince’s flowing tresses, mustache, and purple satin jacket. As the session wore on, three others transformed into creatures we’ve long suspected of occupying City Council seats: a bunny, a shark, and a sloth.
The council was about to hand out a historic treat: a 99-year lease on nearly 20 acres of Jackson Park for $10, along with an agreement to undertake taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects, including road closures and construction estimated to cost at least $175 million.
But there were a few things the council had to get out of the way first, like a public comment period that gave a handful of citizens three minutes each to tell the council what was on their minds. With a monster of a digital clock looming over them, ticking off the seconds, they begged the council to forbid horse-drawn carriages, establish a senior housing bill of rights, increase funding for mental health services, and get rid of the lead that’s poisoning the city water supply.
The speakers were ardent, the officials distracted.
While the citizens told their horror stories of horses working round-the-clock shifts and senior housing residents collapsing in 93- degree indoor heat, the alderpeople huddled and hugged and roamed, putting their heads together for impromptu confabs, perusing the stacks of documents that had just then been dropped at their seats, checking their phones.
They were more attentive once the public’s half hour was up. Mayor Rahm Emanuel called for resolutions, starting with one that honored two police officers for preventing a suicide and showing empathy while doing it. One alderman after another stood and praised the pair.
“The Chicago Police Department is the best in the nation,” Alderman Ed Burke (14th) declared, as if we had been transported to an alternate universe.
After two more resolutions and a lot more aldermanic minispeeches of praise, the mayor announced that it was time to turn the council’s attention to the Obama Center, “the only presidential library with a public library inside of it.”
Whereupon—like a bolt of lightning on a dark and stormy night—rules were suspended, a roll-call vote was taken, and both OPC ordinances were resoundingly passed, 48 to zero.
There was no discussion, and that was no surprise: the council had approved earlier versions of the Obama Foundation plan twice before. Emanuel remarked on how important the center would be to the city, and the council gave the project a standing cheer.
So did most everyone in the audience. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t want the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. But some supporters still have issues with the plan. Patricia Hightower, a member of the Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition (members of which demonstrated in the hall outside the council chamber before the meeting), told me this week that her group is seeking aldermanic support for an ordinance that would set aside 30 percent of new and rehabbed housing for low-income and working families, freeze property taxes for longtime residents, and invest in workforce development and affordable housing in the neighborhoods around Jackson Park. The coalition wants to get a referendum to that effect on the February ballot in those precincts.
“It’s Obama yes, displacement no,” Hightower said.
Friends of the Parks, whose lawsuit to keep the Lucas Museum off parkland sent that project to Los Angeles, issued a statement saying that it opposes any park site, but “if it must be in a park, we will advocate for a ‘park positive'” outcome. Among their concerns: public access to the park, replacement of lost parkland and facilities, and financial support from the Obama Foundation for the broader South Lakefront Framework Plan.
Jackson Park Watch, which had urged the council to defer the vote, said in its own statement that no construction can occur until federal reviews are complete, and that those reviews will examine problems the group had noted: “loss of parkland, impacts of the discretionary roadwork, and displacement of local residents.”
And then there’s the Protect Our Parks lawsuit, still pending in federal court. It claims that the city and Park District have engaged in a property-flipping scheme for the illegal purpose of turning protected parkland over to a private entity. POP says that’s a nasty trick. The next court date has been set for December 5; expect the city to file a motion to dismiss any day now.
As for the many other measures the council approved on Halloween, most of them were stuffed into a great big grab bag of an omnibus bill filled with aldermanic goodies and passed with another unanimous vote. v