Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to step down may give critics of the library plan more time and room to negotiate.

Public safety, the city’s pension load, and public schools were the major issues haunting Rahm Emanuel’s assumed re-election bid earlier this month, all of which were upended by his surprise announcement that he wouldn’t throw his hat into the ring for a third term. Given the power that the office of Chicago’s mayor has traditionally held and its history of machine-style politics, nearly every issue hinges on which way “the man on five” (there has only been one woman mayor) leans.

That includes the fate of the Obama Presidential Center, to be installed in Jackson Park on the South Side, near where President Obama taught at the University of Chicago and began his political career.


Emanuel’s exit from Chicago politics was largely a product of concerted efforts from grassroots organizers across the city, and especially in its predominantly African-American South and West Sides. On the issue of the Obama library, these activists are joined by a slate of preservation advocates with political capital that grassroots organizers in poor, disinvested communities don’t often enjoy.

Now that Emanuel is stepping aside, critics of the park deal have more room to speak out in favor of a community benefits agreement (CBA), which they feel the Obama Foundation owes to the struggling South Side neighborhoods where it’s setting up shop.

Nearly everyone in Chicago is in favor of establishing the Obama library on the South Side. But now, “There’ll be more room for dissent, and more people in Chicago generally willing to speak their mind without fearing the Emanuel administration,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, which has opposed the seizure of parkland. “More voices will feel free to ask more questions and not automatically rubber-stamp everything.”

It’s not yet a done deal. The city and the Obama Foundation still have to formalize a land-use agreement for the property, which is likely to happen next month. There’s also a federal review process stemming from the National Environmental Policy Act that could hold things up, but is less connected to local politics. The foundation currently expects a groundbreaking in 2019. Emanuel’s term ends in May.