Judge Tosses Out Lawsuit Opposing Obama Presidential Center | WBEZ
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Judge Tosses Out Lawsuit Opposing Obama Presidential Center

Updated at 5:20 p.m.

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit from a parks advocacy group that sought to stop construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey said there will be no delay in building the $500 million presidential center in a portion of the South Side park.

“The facts are clear in this case, and the law is more settled than the parties are suggesting,” Blakey said. His bench ruling surprised both sides after listening to oral arguments from lawyers representing the nonprofit Protect Our Parks and the city of Chicago at Tuesday’s packed courtroom hearing.

Protect Our Parks filed a lawsuit last year and argues that putting a presidential center in historic Jackson Park violates the public trust. The plaintiffs call the deal an illegal land grab in which the city failed to do due diligence. The city said the presidential center is a benefit to the park and community and points out that 11 other museums operate on park land in the city — from the DuSable Museum of African African History in Washington Park to the Chicago History Museum in Lincoln Park. The judge agreed that the state of Illinois museum act permits the city to contract with private entities to build a presidential center in a public park.

Last October, the Chicago City Council approved an agreement between the Obama Foundation and the city to build the presidential center in Jackson Park. It’s a 99-year lease for $10. The land would still be owned by the city, which would also assume ownership of the presidential center’s buildings after construction. The Obama Foundation is behind the building and design of the museum and campus for the country’s first black president. It will include a museum, forum space, Chicago Public Library branch, and public plaza. The Obama Foundation estimates an economic impact of $3 billion for Chicago during the presidential center’s construction period and first 10 years of operation. The Obamas have said they want to create a South Side museum campus linking to the Museum of Science and Industry.

In a statement, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she is committed to ensuring the Obama Presidential Center creates unprecedented cultural opportunities and economic growth on the South Side.

“The court today made unequivocally clear that this project may be located in Jackson Park, marking a significant step forward in this historic project and for our entire city,” Lightfoot said. “Toward that important end, I look forward to meeting with community stakeholders and the Obama Foundation to resolve remaining issues so that the benefits of this important project can be shared by all.”

Also in a statement, Obama Foundation CEO David Simas said he’s thrilled with the ruling.

“Our vision for the Obama Presidential Center has always been one where the location reinforces the project’s core aims: a celebration of history, a place of connection and engagement for the public, and an investment in community,” Simas said. “We couldn’t be more excited to move forward on our plans, arm in arm with our neighbors in Chicago, ready to bring investment and jobs to the South Side.”

Meanwhile, Mark Roth, an attorney for Protect Our Parks, said he was extremely surprised with Blakey’s ruling.

“I disagree with the ultimate outcome and we’re going to file an appeal to the 7th Circuit, and we ultimately believe we will prevail,” Roth said outside of the judge’s courtroom.

Blakey’s 52-page written ruling released Tuesday afternoon said: “Unconvincingly, Plaintiffs attempt to twist this public benefit into a private purpose, arguing that the Museum’s mission merely ‘seeks to preserve and enhance the legacy of the former President and his wife’ rather than benefit the public. But this Court cannot accept such a mischaracterization; under Plaintiffs’ theory, any museum with which a select group of individuals disagree could violate the public trust.”

The ruling went on to say the court will not transform itself into a legislature or zoning board and then rewrite the educational merits of any given museum or presidential center built on public trust land.

Race has been an undercurrent in the lawsuit. For many black South Siders, the chance to honor the country’s first black president also presents opportunity to bring economic development to nearby communities that have long faced a lack of resources and investment. For vocal preservationists, many of whom are white, protecting public land from private development is key. Members of Protect Our Parks are mostly white and do not live in the communities closest to Jackson Park, a fact which irks some neighbors who point to a racial dynamic they call patronizing.

When asked about being an outsider bringing about this lawsuit, plaintiff Herb Caplan said Tuesday that “every day I get letters of support. There’s never been an election to determine what the public wants. I think it’s a misstatement that the general public is in favor of this.”

Still, the Obama Presidential Center faces other hurdles.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act as well as consultation under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, the federal government must review any changes to Jackson Park that come with building the presidential center.

“Today’s ruling, while disappointing, is by no means the final word,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, which is an official consulting party to federal level reviews. “Though the carefully orchestrated local approvals process has been enabled by pliant municipal officials, there are still federal-level reviews underway for this nationally significant work of landscape architecture that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”

The Obama Foundation has said no to a community benefits agreement but that hasn’t deterred a coalition from organizing. Activists want to protect residents from displacement with written guarantees of affordable housing and a property tax freeze. New 20th Ward Alderman Jeanette Taylor, whose area includes Woodlawn, the closest neighborhood to the presidential center, supports a city ordinance for a CBA. Taylor and 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston — who now supports a CBA — say they will introduce an ordinance at July’s city council meeting.

Natalie Moore is WBEZ’s South Side reporter. Follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.

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