A federal judge ruled that a lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks to stop the Obama Foundation from building a new presidential center in Jackson Park, a 543-acre waterfront public park on the South Side of Chicago, can move forward. The ruling creates significant new challenges for the proposed $500 million project, which has been designed by Todd Williams Bill Tsien Architects and landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. The center was expected to open in 2021, but hasn’t broken ground due to outstanding legal issues and federal environment and historic site impact reviews.
U.S. Judge John Robert Blakey didn’t make a ruling on the legal merits of the lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks and other parties, only stating there are grounds to proceed.
At dispute is whether protected public park land can be used to build a privately-run presidential center; the Obamas have chosen not to create an official, National Archives-managed presidential library.
The Obama Foundation stated it chose the proposed 19-acre site in Jackson Park so it would be near the Museum of Science and Industry and connect to the existing museum hub in the park, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and other Olmsted Brothers firms.
Chicago’s city government, led by Obama’s former chief of staff and current Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has been highly supportive of the project, viewing it as a way to boost economic development; create 5,000 construction jobs and 2,500 permanent, local jobs; and attract 760,000 tourists annually to the under-served South Side. In addition to the exhibition spaces, the Obama Center would create new top-notch public playgrounds and athletic facilities, a sledding hill, a community vegetable garden, and incorporate a public library, using just 3 percent of the existing park.
City officials and the Obama Foundation see creating a major cultural destination like the Center far outside the downtown loop as an important step towards a more equitable Chicago.
According to the Associated Press, many legislative actions have been taken by the city and state to move the project forward. State legislators amended the Illinois Aquarium and Museum Act to “include presidential libraries as an exception to the no-development rules if there’s a compelling public interest.” And the Chicago City Council approved building the presidential center in Jackson Park, 47-to-1 (and provided construction permits).
As part of the deal, the Chicago Park District sold the 19.3 acres of Jackson Park requested for the presidential center to the city for $1. The Obama Foundation then paid the city $10 to use the land in Jackson Park for 99 years, but also agreed to raise the $500 million needed for the presidential center and pay for all costs associated with operating the center for 99 years. After the opening of the physical center, the foundation would transfer ownership of the building back to the city.
If city councilors truly represent the will of their districts, this indicates widespread support for the project and its financing scheme among Chicagoans.
But there are a number of detractors as well — Protect Our Parks, a parks advocacy group, was joined by three individuals, and other organizations offered support. The Chicago Tribune reports their lawsuit isn’t directed at the Obama Foundation itself but is instead lobbed at the city government and Chicago Parks District. The suit argues that “the presidential center is not the same as a presidential library and should not be granted access to public land.” The lawsuit states: “defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way … to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab.”
Furthermore, critics contend the state will need to spend $175 million of taxpayer money to re-route roads around the presidential center, which constitutes a partisan use of public funds, an argument the judge rejected. And the center would damage the environment and create an obstacle for migratory birds and butterflies.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of Protect the Parks’ lawsuit. In a statement, Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA, President & CEO writes: “The Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago created this controversy by insisting on the confiscation of public parkland. The Obama Foundation could make this issue go away by using vacant and/or city-owned land on the South Side for the Obama Presidential Center (which is planned to be a private facility rather than a presidential library administered by the National Archives), or, better still, land owned by the University of Chicago, which submitted the winning bid to host the Center.”
TCLF and other park advocacy groups have long called for the presidential center to be moved out of Jackson Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. As the lawsuit moves to trial in federal court, it remains to be seen whether the Obama Foundation will attempt to persuade the judge of the merits of their proposal or pick up and move to another location on the South Side.
The worst fear of the project’s supporters is the lawsuit will cause the Obama Foundation to totally rethink their plans, just as another suit caused George Lucas to move his proposed $400 million Museum of Narrative Arts — which he sought to locate on the Chicago waterfront — to downtown Los Angeles. Lucas didn’t even wait for the judge’s ruling. In the case of the Obama Center though, there has been a far greater commitment to stay in the South Side.