Protect Our Parks Takes Obama Center Case to US Supreme Court

The latest rendering of the Obama Presidential Center tower. (Courtesy of Obama Foundation)The latest rendering of the Obama Presidential Center tower. (Courtesy of Obama Foundation)

In February, a yearslong federal review of the Obama Foundation’s plan to build the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park concluded in the foundation’s favor.

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At the time, opponents vowed to continue their fight against the project’s location, which they contend will irreparably harm Jackson Park’s historic landscape. This week, the nonprofit Protect Our Parks made good on that promise, filing a “petition for writ of certiorari” with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The filing asks the Supreme Court to revisit an appellate court decision issued in August 2020, which said the organization lacked any grounds to sue in the first place.

The Supreme Court typically accepts 100 to 150 of the more than 7,000 cases it’s asked to review each year, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Four of the nine justices must vote to accept a case.

If the court does take up Protect Our Parks’ petition, the newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, would have an opportunity to reconsider one of her own appellate decisions. Barrett was one of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judges that heard the Protect Our Parks case in question.

“The 7th Circuit opinion being appealed to the Supreme Court did not rule on the merits of the Protect Our Parks lawsuit but only on plaintiffs’ standing to sue,” explained Herb Caplan, president of Protect Our Parks. “This is an important legal issue about court procedure because it will apply to every public interest and environmental protection organization in the country, and is contrary to existing case law.”

Whether the Supreme Court accepts or denies the organization’s petition, Caplan said Protect Our Parks will not have exhausted its legal options.

“In no way will it result in stopping our continuing litigation to protect Jackson Park,” he said. “The 7th Circuit opinion said we had to start over with a new complaint, and that is exactly what we are in the process of doing.”

A closeup of the planned speech excerpt that will be carved into the Obama Center tower. (Courtesy of Obama Foundation)A closeup of the planned speech excerpt that will be carved into the Obama Center tower. (Courtesy of Obama Foundation)

The proposed center would include a four-building campus, underground parking facility, plaza, play areas, pedestrian and bicycle paths and landscaped open space in Jackson Park. The park was designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

During the course of the federal review, the Obama Foundation was required to revise its plans to mitigate “adverse impacts” on Jackson Park, revisions that were ultimately deemed acceptable by federal authorities.

Opponents continue to argue otherwise. They also question the soundness of an agreement, approved by the Chicago City Council, to turn over nearly 20 acres of parkland to the Obama Foundation, for 99 years, at a cost of just $10. At the same time, the city and state are on the hook for road improvements related to the center, with a projected price tag of $175 million.

Proponents of the center, who’ve called the project a “silver bullet” for an area sorely in need of investment, have grown weary of Protect Our Parks’ delay tactics.

“We have been going back and forth with these meritless lawsuits for several years. We would like to get this project underway,” Tonya Trice, executive director of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, previously told WTTW News.

Meanwhile, the Obama Foundation is proceeding apace with the center’s design. 

Over the weekend, the foundation revealed a new detail of the center’s proposed 235-foot tower: An excerpt from a speech delivered by former President Barack Obama in 2015 will be carved into the building’s crown, the open-air lettering affording visitors views of the city to the south and west.

The words were drawn from Obama’s address at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, marking the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches. The quotes reads:

“You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, ready to seize what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there is new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed. America is not the project of any one person. The single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We The People.’ ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ‘Yes We Can.’ That word is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.” 

Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 |  [email protected]

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