The Obama Presidential Center faced another stumbling block as a federal judge ruled in favor of a lawsuit challenging its construction.
An environmental group seeking to halt the already delayed construction of former President Obama’s $500 million Chicago-area presidential center got some good news Tuesday as U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey acknowledged there was legal standing in the case, Fox News reported.
In a lawsuit, the advocacy group Protect Our Parks accused the city of “gifting” the land in a Chicago park beside Lake Michigan to the private Obama Foundation in violation of the due-process rights of taxpayers, which prompted Blakey to rule that there was enough legal ground for the case to proceed.
“We are not opposing construction of the Obama Presidential Center, as long as it’s not in historic Jackson Park,” Herbert Caplan, founder of Protect Our Parks, said according to the Chicago Tribune, calling the ruling “a victory because it keeps our case alive.”
Litigation has delayed groundbreaking for the center, which was set to open in 2021 on 20 acres of the 500-acre Jackson Park, a location near low-income neighborhoods where the former president once worked as a community organizer. Protect Our Parks alleged the city illegally transferred the park property, manipulating laws to expedite the approval process.
“Defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way … to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab,” the lawsuit said.
According to Fox News:
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 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.
After construction is completed, ownership of the center would reportedly be transferred to the city.
“They are essentially giving [property] to Obama … for 10 cents a year for 99 years,” Mark Roth, a parks advocacy lawyer, said.
“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,” Cultural Landscape Foundation President Charles Birnbaum said in a statement, blaming the center’s planners who “created this controversy by insisting on the confiscation of public parkland.”
Blakey indicated that he would limit any fact-gathering before the trial to 45 days as he did not want the lawsuit to drag on. The judge, appointed by Obama in 2014, did not agree with parts of the suit in his Tuesday ruling, dismissing the claim that taxpayers’ First Amendment rights would be violated because they would be funding Obama’s political causes.
The judge also ruled in his 21-page decision that the group didn’t have standing to sue “based upon aesthetic or environmental harm.” The lawsuit filed last May by Protect Our Parks and three other plaintiffs called the proposed center an “institutional bait-and-switch.”
“As we have said before, we believe the lawsuit is without merit,” an Obama Foundation spokesperson said after Blakey ruling Tuesday, according to the Chicago Tribune. “We are confident that our plan for the Obama Presidential 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.”
But a co-founder of a group advocating the relocation of the sprawling center indicated that members are “quite pleased” with the ruling.
“We think there are some very important issues involved in this case,” Margaret Schmid of Jackson Park Watch said. “One of the things we think is important is to resolve the question of whether public parkland can be given to a private entity without judicial review.”
But with the ongoing legal issues and division between long-time residents and environmental activists, plans by the foundation to break ground this year seem to be hanging in the balance.