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A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit that sought to stop a portion of Jackson Park from being transformed into the home of the $500 million Obama Presidential Center.
Former President Barack Obama broke ground on the center in the historic South Side park in September even as Protect Our Parks continued to sue to block the center, designed to enshrine the legacy of the first Black president not far from where former first lady Michelle Obama grew up. The group contended the center would irreversibly damage the park and the surrounding environment.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Blakey rejected the group’s claims that the city, through the Chicago Park District, improperly gave control of the land set to become the Obama Center to the former president’s foundation in violation of the public trust.
Once construction is complete, the city will own the center under the terms of a 2018 ordinance approved by the Chicago City Council.
The Obama Center will “confer a public benefit because they ‘serve valuable public purposes, including ... furthering human knowledge and understanding, educating and inspiring the public, and expanding recreational and cultural resources and opportunities,” Blakey wrote, citing the state law that governs museums.
Protect Our Parks founder and president Herb Caplan told WTTW News the group would appeal the ruling.
In April 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal as part of a previous lawsuit brought by the group. That lawsuit is still pending appeal.
When construction started on the center in the fall, the group unsuccessfully asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the work while its two lawsuits were pending. Justice Amy Coney Barrett declined to reverse Blakey’s ruling to allow the construction to begin.
“This is not the end of the road,” Caplan said Tuesday morning. “Our many available paths of legal recourse are actually beginning not ending, and with a few unexpected surprises to come for the defendants.”
Caplan called Blakey’s rulings on the Obama Center “dubious and controversial.”
Representatives of the Obama Foundation did not respond to a request for comment from WTTW News.
“The city is pleased with the court’s decision to dismiss the claims under Illinois law,” said Kristen Cabanban, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department.
Originally scheduled to open to the public in 2021, the center was not only delayed by the lawsuits but also a federal review, which ultimately concluded in February that the four-building project would have “no significant impact” on the federally protected park.
Plans call for the southern portion of Midway Plaisance Drive and Cornell Drive to be closed. In addition, south Stony Island Avenue and the northern portion of Midway Plaisance Drive will be widened. Barrier walls and stoplights will be installed on Hayes Drive.
The state budget approved in May 2018 included $174 million to cover the cost of closing the roads through Jackson Park to make way for the center.
The relocation of those roads will mean the loss of parkland and recreational facilities, but the review found that a plan to replace that loss with more than 5 acres of new parkland and recreational facilities at the east end of the Midway Plaisance was sufficient, according to the review.
Obama has said he hoped the center would help Chicago turn the page on the difficulties the city has faced since 2020, including the economic catastrophe triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The proposed center would include a four-building campus, branch library, underground parking facility, plaza, play areas, pedestrian and bicycle paths and landscaped open space in Jackson Park. But the federal review found the Obama Presidential Center would diminish “the historic property’s overall integrity by altering historic, internal spatial divisions that were designed as a single entity” by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
That required the former president’s foundation to revise its plans to mitigate those adverse impacts on Jackson Park, the Midway Plaisance and the city’s Park Boulevard System. Those plans now meet the requirements of the Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.
“After implementation of the selected alternative, the historic properties will retain enough historic integrity to remain eligible for and listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” according to the review.
The City Council approved the master agreement, use agreement and environmental agreement between the Obama Foundation and the city in May 2018. The agreement turns over 19.3 acres of city land to the foundation for 99 years for the nominal cost of $10.
The Obama Foundation expects the center and its construction will create 5,000 jobs. Foundation officials have vowed to set aside 35% of construction jobs for residents of surrounding communities, including Woodlawn, Austin and Englewood.
There are also plans in place to train 400 new apprentices from the city’s South and West sides through the building trade unions, officials said.
In addition, the Obama Foundation has promised to set aside half of the projects for firms owned by female, Black and Latino Chicagoans, nearly double the city’s goals.
In September 2020, City Council unanimously agreed to spend $4.5 million from the city’s affordable housing fund to combat displacement fueled by gentrification. Two-thirds of those funds are earmarked to help Woodlawn residents buy homes or stay in the homes they already own.
Patty Wetli contributed to this report.
Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]