One of the remaining obstacles to building Barack Obama's presidential library in his hometown of Chicago fell away when Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation Friday strengthening the city's legal ability to build the project on public park land.
The decision to locate the legacy project where Obama started his political career wasn't a surprise. But it hit snags when the University of Chicago initially failed to secure park land and when an advocacy group objected and threatened a lawsuit like one it filed to stop lakefront construction on "Star Wars" creator George Lucas' proposed museum.
The measure, which Rauner said would benefit the city and state, changes Illinois law to let Chicago build museums on park or "formerly submerged" land, such as the Lake Michigan-adjacent property where Lucas wants to build. "Both of those developments will be strong economic drivers for the state of Illinois," Rauner told reporters during a Friday stop in southwest Illinois, "helping the overall Illinois economy as well as the Chicago economy with tourism and visitors, and help create jobs and more tax revenue."
Obama's library will be built on Chicago's South Side, where the University of Chicago has proposed two potential sites not far from the Obama family's home. The Barack Obama Foundation, which was deciding between university bids in Illinois, Hawaii and New York, was expected to release details within weeks. Two people with knowledge of the decision confirmed to The Associated Press that Chicago had been chosen. They spoke on condition of anonymity because it hasn't been publicly announced.
The office of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former White House chief of staff, declined to comment ahead of an official announcement, as did the University of Chicago and University of Hawaii. Columbia University officials in New York didn't immediately comment.
Friends of the Parks, which filed the lawsuit to stop construction of the Lucas museum, said they welcomed Chicago as a choice for the Obama library. But they urged against using park land, saying it could set a dangerous precedent. Before the Illinois legislation emerged — which legislators fast-tracked last month — Friends of the Parks argued the Lucas museum site was a protected waterway.
They said they were considering a similar lawsuit regarding the library. However, the group didn't mention it Friday. "We admire your record as a champion of the environment, including the park system in your home town," the group said in a statement directed at Obama. "Please leave us the double legacy of a world class library and world class parks."
The group's objections have stood out among residents, activists and clergy members who largely agree that Chicago wins no matter where the library's built. Supporters of a location on the South Side — home to historically significant black neighborhoods — called it ideal for the library of the nation's first black president.
Bishop Larry Trotter of the roughly 10,000-member Sweet Holy Spirit Church, likened it to a "monument" of hope. U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Democrat, called the library a "significant milestone" for Chicago in an audio statement. Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, head of a neighborhood organization, deemed it a "catalytic" opportunity to generate jobs and create new businesses for area residents.
"This is a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for young people who I'm sure wonder on a daily basis why their community doesn't have the same amenities as other communities," she said.