A group of opponents of the development of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park have sued the city of Chicago and the Chicago Park District to stop what they call a “short con shell game” that, if allowed to proceed, will “destroy the pristine open environment” and “open the door to progressively more intrusive destruction” of the historic park on Chicago’s South Side.
On May 14, the group Protect Our Parks Inc., with named plaintiffs Charlotte Adelman, Maria Valencia and Jeremiah Jurvis, filed suit in Chicago federal court, asking the judge to slap an injunction on the city and park district’s plan to transfer 20 acres of Jackson Park land to the Obama Foundation, the private nonprofit organization that will oversee the construction and operation of the proposed Barack Obama Presidential Center.
Three years ago, in May 2015, the Obama Foundation and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the city was supporting the foundation’s plans to build the Obama Center on a site in Jackson Park, near the University of Chicago’s campus. The plan would involve extensive construction on the site, centered on the complex’s 12-story primary structure. Around the site, streets would be closed, and Lakeshore Drive would be widened.
Mark Roth | Roth Fioretti LLC
However, the project has generated pushback from the start, with residents concerned about the project’s impact on the surrounding neighborhoods and others concerned about the effects of the project on the park itself – particularly for a project that would not be an official presidential library, containing documents and artifacts from Obama’s presidency, which are held by the National Archives. Rather, the structure will instead be essentially a museum and monument focused on Barack Obama himself, and operated by the Obama Foundation, with no formal association with or external control from the federal government.
The complaint characterized this decision as “an institutional bait-and-switch,” designed to grant legal cover for the transfer of control over a large chunk of prime Chicago public park land to a private organization, essentially at the expense of the taxpayers of Chicago and the state of Illinois.
“The City and the Park District clearly realize and fully understand that this established law precludes the Park District from arbitrarily transferring possession, use and control of this dedicated ‘open, clear and free’ public parkland in Jackson Park to a private nongovernmental private entity’s self-determined use,” the complaint said. “Defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way, known as a short con shell game, a corrupt scheme to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab, one that will endure for centuries to come, regardless of future changing public park needs and increasingly consequential environmental conditions.”
The complaint further notes the move in January 2016 by supporters of the Obama Center project to change Illinois state law to explicitly add “presidential” museums and libraries to the list of museums and aquariums permitted to be operated on park district land in Illinois, and tacking on language declaring the additions should be considered “existing law and shall not be construed as a new enactment.”
The complaint asserted this makes the project automatically illegal, as the approval for the project had been granted before the law was changed.
“Illinois had deeded the Jackson Park site to the Park District with the express restriction that the land ‘be held, managed and controlled by them and their park, for the recreation, health and benefit of the public, and free to all,’” the complaint said. “Construction of the various proposed buildings in the park destroys the public park’s recreational purpose of open space, ‘free to all persons forever.’”
The lawsuit asks the court to find the transfer of the Jackson Park land to the Obama Foundation amounts to an illegal taking of public park land, in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s due process clause, a breach of the public trust and illegal use of park district land under Illinois state law.
The lawsuit also notes the new language within the state Aquarium and Museum Act includes approval of a new property tax, to be levied by the Chicago Park District, to fund maintenance and certain other work at the Obama Center site. The complaint asserts such a tax constitutes a violation of the First Amendment rights of taxpayers who may not wish for their tax payments to be used in support of the political initiatives and goals of the Obama Foundation.
Protect Our Parks is represented by attorneys Mark Roth, Robert Fioretti and Kenneth Hurst, of the firm of Roth Fioretti LLC, of Chicago.