A federal judge could decide Tuesday whether or not to toss a lawsuit challenging the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. The suit, brought by the nonprofit group Protect Our Parks against the city and the Chicago Park District, argues the 19.3 acres of federally protected public park space cannot be legally transferred to a private entity. The Chicago Plan Commission and City Council approved zoning and traffic changes to clear the way for the project last October, but it still faces a slew of federal reviews in addition to the lawsuit.
U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey is scheduled to issue a ruling Tuesday on whether or not the plaintiffs have standing to proceed with the case in federal court. A protracted lawsuit could significantly delay the construction of the center, if not halt it outright.
In addition, three separate groups joined the lawsuit alleging there is no precedent for the construction of a private building on public park space. Institutions like the Field Museum and Museum of Science and Industry were either built on non-federally protected parkland or on the existing footprints of previously demolished buildings, or are housed within buildings that had already existed, the suit argues. The Obama Presidential Center would call for the “destruction” of 19.3 acres of Jackson Park for a new building with private use, according to the suit.
“We believe that there are really important issues in this case,” said Margaret Schmid, head of Jackson Park Watch, a group that has opposed the construction of the facility in Jackson Park. Schmid says that the original intent of the building was to house the former president’s records and documents, but the purpose has shifted now that the Obama Foundation has announced those will mostly exist online, and that the building itself will serve as more of a programmed community space.
“There’s a lot of questions about what happened, and the amount of secrecy that’s been involved,” Schmid said.
Jackson Park Watch and other groups, like Preservation Chicago and the Washington D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, have argued the center should be built on other vacant land in the area, not a public park.
“Regardless of the outcome, the legality of confiscating public parkland for a privately operated facility will still be at issue, and federal-level reviews will still be ongoing,” said Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation. “From a national perspective, if the Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago succeed in taking some 20 acres of National Register-listed Jackson Park for the [Obama Presidential Center], what’s to stop other powerful and well-connected interests from citing this precedent as justification for expropriating parkland elsewhere in Chicago and around the country?”
Per the agreement between the Obama Foundation and the city, the building would be constructed using private funds but ownership would be transferred to the city for free. The Obama Foundation would control and pay for the operation of the building. Representatives for the Obama Foundation have said the project will result in more publicly accessible green space because of the closure of Cornell Drive and conversion of that land to parkland. They maintain that the building itself will have a small footprint, that much of the structure will be built into the ground, and that the space will be open to the public. The foundation has agreed to relocate an existing high school track and field on the site to public land one block south. Groups like Jackson Park Watch complained and successfully halted the move of the field when they noticed old historic trees being torn down to make way for the presidential center last summer.
If the judge agrees to continue the case, the next hearing would be on Feb. 27, one day after the Chicago election. A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Bob Fioretti, is also a candidate for Chicago mayor.
The Obama Foundation did not return requests for comment.
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