CHICAGO—A judge on Feb. 19 gave the green light to a lawsuit filed by a parks-advocacy group that aims to permanently stop the delayed construction of former President Barack Obama’s $500 million presidential center in a Chicago park beside Lake Michigan.
Some supporters of the project fear the lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks could force Obama—who launched his political career in Chicago—to build the Obama Presidential Center elsewhere.
A 2016 lawsuit brought by another group helped scuttle a $400 million plan by “Star Wars” creator George Lucas to build a museum on public land on Chicago’s lakefront. The museum is now under construction in Los Angeles.
U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey heard arguments on Feb. 14 on the city’s motion to dismiss the suit and largely focused on whether or not the group had standing to sue.
Blakey did toss parts of the suit in his Tuesday ruling, but concluded that the group has standing because they represent taxpayers with concerns that providing parkland in the public trust to the Obama center violates their due-process rights.
Blakey’s ruling doesn’t mean the group will necessarily prevail, but confirms that the suit poses a formidable threat to the project. The judge indicated that he didn’t want the litigation to drag out, and that he would strictly limit any fact gathering leading up to trial to 45 days.
Plans call for the center to be built in Jackson Park, which was named after President Andrew Jackson, and was a site for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The site, seven miles south of downtown Chicago, is near low-income neighborhoods where Obama worked as a community organizer and is just blocks from the University of Chicago where Obama was a law professor. It is also close to the home where the Obamas lived until he won the presidency in 2008.
The center was originally slated to open in 2021, though ground hasn’t been broken because of the lingering litigation.
In its 2018 suit, Protect Our Parks accused the city of illegally transferring park land to a private entity, The Obama Foundation, effectively “gifting” prized land to a Chicago favorite son. The group said city officials manipulated the approval process and tinkered with legislation to skirt long-standing laws designed to ensure residents have unobstructed access to lakeside parks.
“Defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way … to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab,” the lawsuit stated.
To make the park available for the project, the Chicago Park District first sold the land to the city for $1. Illinois legislators amended the state’s Illinois Aquarium and Museum Act to include presidential libraries as an exception to the no-development rules if there’s a compelling public interest. The Chicago City Council approved the project by a 47-to-1 vote in May 2018.
The Obama Foundation, a private nonprofit, would pay $10 to the city for use of the park land for 99 years, cover the costs of building the complex, and be responsible for covering operating costs for 99 years. Once built, the Obama Presidential Center’s physical structures would be transferred to the city for free, meaning the city would formally own the center but not control what happens there.
“They are essentially giving (property) to Obama … for 10 cents a year for 99 years,” parks advocacy lawyer Mark Roth said Feb. 14.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, legal scholar Richard Epstein said public-trust doctrine places an extra burden on authorities to prove overwhelming public benefit when they offer the use of public parks to such well-connected figures as Obama, who remains hugely popular in the heavily Democratic city. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once served as Obama’s White House chief of staff.
One claim Blakey dismissed Feb. 19 was that taxpayers’ First Amendment rights would be infringed upon because tax money would be spent to reconfigure roads and traffic. The suit argued that taxpayers would thus subsidize any partisan political activity by Obama at the center.
City lawyers conceded Feb. 14 that Chicago would pay an estimated $175 million to reconfigure roads to manage traffic around the center.
The center would comprise 20 acres of the 500-acre park. Its centerpiece would be a 225-foot museum tower, surrounded by a cluster of smaller buildings, including a 300-seat auditorium.
City lawyers said it would bring a major economic boost to poor local minority communities. Backers estimate it would create 5,000 jobs during construction and more than 2,500 permanent jobs.
By Michael Tarm