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Environmentalists who sued over Lucas museum won't oppose Obama library

Chicago’s civic leaders on Wednesday expressed support for plans to construct the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, on the city’s South Shore, hailing the promise of jobs, cultural opportunities and economic development for a cluster of urban neighborhoods.

During a press conference at the city’s Museum of Science and Industry, Obama Foundation Chairman Marty Nesbitt, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other political, educational and religious leaders outlined the scope of the project, which will now enter a design stage lasting a year to 18 months, eventually opening its doors in 2021.

Despite the upbeat words about the future of the city’s waterfront, some observers expressed disappointment that the presidential center will not be built at an alternative site a couple of miles further inland at Washington Park, an area coping with urban ills such as vacant lots and poverty.

Others wondered why the presidential center has not been targeted with a lawsuit by local environmentalists, as was the case for a waterfront museum project proposed by filmmaker George Lucas. Lucas and members of his museum board abandoned that project – to be located about 6.5 miles north of the Obama library site – in June as a result of protracted litigation by the Chicago-based Friends of the Parks.

In a statement released Wednesday, the environmental group said, “Friends of the Parks warmly welcomes the Obama library to Chicago’s South Side but reiterates dismay at the use of existing parkland in Jackson Park rather than abundant vacant land nearby.”

The group’s executive director, Juanita Irizarry, pledged that her organization would not sue the Obama Foundation because the library site is not public trust land, in contrast to the proposed site for the Lucas museum.

“Friends of the Parks’ analysis suggests that there is no realistic legal remedy at this time to protect this public open space from this development,” Irizarry said in a prepared statement.

The group did, however, urge those involved in the Obama library project to find ways to offset environmental impacts or loss of green space to the Jackson Park area.

The Obama project – which will include a library for the president’s archives, a museum and the Obama Foundation’s offices – will require some bulldozing of open space during construction. The original location for the Lucas museum, in contrast, was a paved parking lot near Soldier Field.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Nesbitt noted that, “For the first time in this country’s history, a presidential center will be in the heart of an urban community.”

He said that the Obama Foundation had been looking at both the Washington Park and the Jackson Park locations before settling on the latter site, which Nesbitt said has better aesthetics, is an iconic location and offers greater potential to attract visitors from around the globe.

Emanuel added, “I think this is an opportunity for the whole city to come together to embrace this opportunity economically, culturally and educationally.”

The mayor said the Obama center would complement nearby cultural sites such as the DuSable Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, with economic benefits mushrooming out to all parts of the south side of the city, including the Washington Park neighborhood.

Donna Hampton-Smith, president of the Washington Park Chamber of Commerce, expressed disappointment and frustration over the decision on the library’s location. She contends that the Washington Park neighborhood will lose out on the economic development opportunities that the presidential center could have brought to the neighborhood had the Washington Park site been selected.

In a statement emailed to AMI Newswire, Hampton-Smith said, “I thought that the first family wanted to place the library in a community where it could make the greatest impact. If that’s the case, wouldn’t Washington Park have been a better choice?”

Placing it near the lakefront benefits Hyde Park, which already has all the development it needs, while Washington Park comes out empty-handed, Hampton-Smith said.

She ticked off a list of social ills that the community is facing: “ lack of jobs and new development, the vacant lots with broken glass, high weeds and trash, crime, failing schools, no direct access to fresh fruits and very little commerce.”

In a statement released last week, President Obama said, “With a center in Jackson Park, not only will we be able to affect local change, but we can attract the world to this historic neighborhood. … We are proud that the center will help spur development in an urban area, and we can’t wait to forge new ways to give back to the people of Chicago who have given us so much.”

Lucas, who is taking his museum project to California, previously expressed frustration over the long-term litigation his board endured to protect a Chicago parking lot. In a prepared statement, he said, “The actions initiated by Friends of the Parks and their recent attempts to extract concessions from the city have effectively overridden approvals received from numerous democratically elected bodies of government.”