CHICAGO (AP) — A judge on Tuesday gave the green light to a lawsuit filed by a parks-advocacy group that aims to stop for good 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 to scuttle a $400 million plan by “Star Wars” creator George Lucas to build a museum on public land on Chicago’s lakefront. That museum is now under construction in Los Angeles.
Protect Our Parks lauded the decision Tuesday by U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey.
“It moves the case forward and in effect sets it up for a decisive decision on the merits of the issues,” said Herbert Caplan, the group’s president.
Blakey heard arguments last week on the city’s motion to dismiss the suit and was largely focused on the question of whether the group had standing to sue. His ruling doesn’t mean the group will necessarily prevail, but confirms that the suit poses a formidable threat to the project.
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 7 miles south of downtown Chicago is near low-income neighborhoods where Obama once 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 yet broken because of the lingering litigation.
In its 2018 suit, Protect Our Parks accused the city of illegally transferring parkland to a private entity, The Obama Foundation. The group said city officials manipulated the approval process and tinkered with legislation to skirt long-standing laws designed to ensure residents had 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 says. It also described the city as “gifting” prized land to a Chicago favorite son.
“Chicago has a unique lakefront public park system and Jackson Park is one of the gems in that system,” Caplan said. “Its history dates back 120 years to the Columbian Exposition. It’s protected because the land came to the park district and restricted its use to anything other than for a public park. It’s important to maintain its existence.”
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 last May.
The Obama Foundation, a private nonprofit, would pay $10 to the city for use of the parkland 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 Thursday.
City lawyers said Thursday that the city would also pay an estimated $175 million to reconfigure roads to manage traffic around the center.
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. Mayor Rahm Emanuel once served as Obama’s White House chief of staff.
Among other assertions in the lawsuit is that the center would interfere with migrating butterflies and birds.
City lawyers said Protect Our Parks misread the law, misrepresented how the approval process played out and exaggerated potential environmental disruptions.
The center would comprise 20 acres of the 500-acre park. Its centerpiece building would be a 225-foot museum tower, with a cluster of lower buildings around it, including a 300-seat auditorium. The center’s website says the complex would be “a world-class museum and public gathering space that celebrates our nation’s first African American President and First Lady (Michelle Obama).”
City lawyers said the center would provide significant benefits, including bringing a major economic boost to poor local minority communities. Backers estimate it will create 5,000 jobs during construction and over 2,500 permanent jobs. An estimated 760,000 people could visit each year.
Obama selected Chicago over other locations vying to host his presidential center, including Hawaii, where he was born.
The next hearing is set for Feb. 27 in federal court.
Paris Schutz contributed. Twitter: @paschutz