Lawsuit Opposing The Obama Presidential Center Moves Forward | WBEZ
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Lawsuit Opposing The Obama Presidential Center Moves Forward

A federal judge has ruled that a parks lawsuit opposing the Obama Presidential Center can move forward.

U.S. Judge John Robert Blakey ruled Tuesday in favor of Protect Our Parks, a preservationist group that objects to the proposed Obama Presidential Center (OPC) going in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side. The ruling denies a motion from the city and the city’s park district to dismiss the case. The ruling doesn’t argue the legal merits of the case but says that the case can continue.

The delay means groundbreaking for the $500 million OPC may not happen this year. The Obama Foundation, which is behind the building and design of the museum and campus for the country’s first black president, said the lawsuit is without merit. A spokesperson said the center “is consistent with Chicago's rich tradition of locating world-class museums in its parks, and we look forward to developing a lasting cultural institution on the South Side."

Mark Roth, an attorney for Protect Our Parks, said he expected a ruling in his client’s favor.

“Our standing is primarily based what’s called the public trust doctrine, which means the City Council has an obligation to do what’s in the public’s best interest with this piece of property, and we’re alleging they’re not doing that,” Roth said.

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 OPC buildings after construction.

But Protect Our Parks has called the deal an illegal land grab. The group’s lawsuit has raised curious political and racial implications. The plaintiffs are mostly white and do not live in the communities closest to Jackson Park, which irks some neighbors who point to a racial dynamic they call patronizing.

Meanwhile, Blakey ruled against additional claims raised by the parks preservationists. The judge dismissed the plaintiff’s environmental and aesthetic harm theory. The judge also dismissed the municipal taxpayer argument since one of the plaintiffs lives in Wilmette. Finally, Blakey disagreed with the group’s First Amendment claim and wrote it “rests upon multiple levels of wild factual speculation.”

The plaintiffs argued in the lawsuit that: “Former President Obama has made it known that he intends to use his Center as a ‘bully pulpit’ to continue his political activities by raising money for the Democrat (sic) Party, endorsing individual candidates for election, speaking out on controversial partisan political issues, and being outspoken in critiquing the actions of succeeding presidents and elected members of Congress with whom he disagrees.” The judge agreed with the city, which pointed out that the OPC will not engage in partisan activities per federal laws governing the Obama Foundation.

City officials said they were  pleased the court dismissed those claims.

"The Obama Presidential Center is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of Chicago. It will bring transformative investment to the South Side, create hundreds of permanent jobs, and inspire young Chicagoans and people from across the world to follow the lead of Barack and Michelle Obama,” said Ed Siskel, the city’s corporation counsel.

Preservationists outside of Chicago have been watching the case.

“The Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago created this controversy by insisting on the confiscation of public parkland,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation in Washington, D.C. “The Obama Foundation could make this issue go away by using vacant and/or city-owned land on the South Side for the Obama Presidential Center (which is planned to be a private facility rather than a presidential library administered by the National Archives), or, better still, land owned by the University of Chicago, which submitted the winning bid to host the Center.”

Last fall, 21 Chicago museum and cultural institution leaders signed a public letter of support for the OPC. Many are located in public parks.

“We are disappointed that in today’s ruling the (Protect Our Parks) lawsuit was not fully dismissed. This lawsuit has been a waste of taxpayer’s dollars and, at its core, a delay tactic by the opposition to the groundbreaking of the OPC in Jackson Park,” said Southside Neighbors for Hope in a statement. “The suit moving forward, even partially, is another delay in construction jobs for the people of our communities, delay in the construction of a center that will provide safe, educational and inspirational programming for our children and delay in the long-term economic investment that this center will bring to the South Side of Chicago.” 

The next court date is Feb. 27.

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