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Legislature lets Chicago use parkland for Obama library

  • Associated Press/ Jan. 13
    Activists protest a University of Chicago proposal to build President Barack Obama’s presidential library on public parkland. Despite opposition

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. » The Illinois Legislature quickly approved a bill Thursday to ensure that Chicago has legal authority to use public parkland as potential sites for Barack Obama’s presidential library and film producer George Lucas’ proposed museum.

Obama is expected to soon choose a site in Chicago, New York or Hawaii for his library.

Hawaii’s formal pitch to win the presidential library was submitted in December in a bid that pro­jects between $25 million and $40 million in tax revenue and more than $2 billion in economic activity over its first 10 years.

The proposal by the University of Hawaii, written in collaboration with a who’s who of state leaders and institutions, says a Barack Obama Presidential Center in Hono­lulu would attract millions of visitors already in the market, which would make it one of the most visited presidential libraries in the country.

The Illinois legislation comes amid a controversy mostly centered on whether the city can build the Star Wars creator’s museum, which is supported by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, on formerly submerged lakefront property. A lawsuit filed by Friends of the Parks argues that the city needs state approval and has no authority to hand over the land because it’s technically a protected waterway.

It also comes a week after the advocacy group’s president — a vocal opponent of both projects, yet strongly supported by the mayor — abruptly resigned.

The bill would clarify state law to expressly allow Chicago to construct museums on parkland, or "formerly submerged lands." Supporters said the bill, quickly approved Thursday in the House and Senate, is aimed at eliminating any questions over the city’s authority to go ahead with plans for both projects.

The proposal also would specifically allow the construction of "presidential libraries" on public parkland, as long as the public can access the grounds "in a manner consistent with its access to other public parks."

Though local park advocates oppose a bid from the University of Chicago, where Obama taught, to build it on park district property, Illinois House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Demo­crat, said the legislation is equally about plans for Lucas’ Museum of Narrative Art. The proposed project, which estimates have placed at costing about $400 million, would be built on land that is currently a parking lot near Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears.

Emanuel commended the approval of the bill, saying it makes clear legislators agree with the city’s position "that a presidential library and other museums enhance parkland for the benefit of the public." The Barack Obama Foundation added that the legislation was a "welcome development."

The Star-Advertiser contributed to this report.

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