Chicago City Council backs Obama Presidential Center plans

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Former President Barack Obama speaks at a community event on the Obama Presidential Center at the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago.

Former President Barack Obama speaks at a community event on the Obama Presidential Center at the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago. (Photo: AP)

CHICAGO (AP) — The effort to build the Obama Presidential Center in a park on Chicago's South Side where Barack Obama's political career began cleared its biggest hurdle yet Wednesday when the City Council signed off on the proposal.

The vote was widely expected, but was still historic for both the city where the nation's first black president started and for the state where the only presidential library is that of the president who freed the slaves.

The city's plan commission and zoning board voted in favor of the proposal to build the center in Jackson Park in recent days.

The significance of the vote was not lost on the aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

"We are stewards of a future that will tell a story about (how) America actually embraced its future, its diversity, its common sense of values," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel after the council voted 47-1 to approve the measure and before he stepped out of the council chambers to call Obama with the news. "We will have a home for that future and we built it together."

The project remains under federal view because the park is on the National Register of Historic Places and the center's foundation must secure a contract to lease the parkland from the city, as well as raise more money from private donors to fund the $500 million project. But the vote was a major victory for the foundation that represents the Obamas.

"We remain committed to continuing the conversation with our neighbors and community across Chicago on how we can build an OPC that fulfills President and Mrs. Obama's vision," David Simas, the Obama Foundation CEO said in a statement. He also said the museum would be a community gathering place, as well as a "home for civic engagement."

The hearing lacked much of the emotion of those held over the last several months in which members of the public made spirited pleas both for and against the presidential center.

Only one alderman voted against the measure, saying he could not support a project that will cost the public about $175 million when the city can't seem to find money to make infrastructure repairs, starting with filling the potholes in his ward.

As a result, the hearing felt more like a rally for a cause as aldermen took turns talking about a center that will both serve as a "beacon' to generations of children that they can achieve their dreams, and as an economic boon to impoverished neighborhoods on the South Side.

"This is the largest development in the African American community, probably in the history of this city," said Alderman Anthony Beale.

The Obama Presidential Center still faces a pending lawsuit. A nonprofit group is suing to block construction of the facility, alleging that only the city had the authority to transfer the public park land to the Obama Foundation in order to house the Obama President Library. Since the center won't include an official federal library, the lawsuit contends, the city doesn't have the right to transfer the land.

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