The city of Chicago is defending its plan to build the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, against a court challenge, saying the group behind the challenge is on soggy legal ground in seeking an injunction by contending the park was once under Lake Michigan and so is protected from development.
Chicago officials want to erect a $500 million presidential museum and library in recognition of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. The center would sit on 19 acres of the 543-acre Jackson Park on the city’s South Side. The location is now open green space, with a playground and track-and-field facility, which the city said is nearing the end of its useful life.
The Obamas approved the site, with project promoters saying the center will be an economic and cultural boon to Chicago.
On May 14, the group Protect Our Parks filed action in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to block the project, contending the park is protected from private development, because the land making up the park was once submerged beneath Lake Michigan.
The group pointed to an 1892 U.S. Supreme Court decision that land once submerged beneath a navigable waterway is permanently in the public trust, and cannot be used for private purpose, unless the private purpose either does no harm to or increases public benefits.
Protect Our Parks also maintained the Obama complex would “destroy the pristine open environment” and “open the door to progressively more intrusive destruction.” Further, the group said it feared the former chief executive would use the tax-supported facility to pursue his political agenda — an agenda with which some taxpayers may not agree.
The city filed a motion Nov. 21 to dismiss Protect Our Parks’ injunction request on a number of grounds, primarily that the park was never submerged. But even if it had been, the city said the center should still be built, because it will expand the park’s educational and recreational offerings. The city drew attention to the fact the center will only take up about 4 percent of the park.
The city also pointed out that, although the private Obama Foundation will cover the center’s construction and maintenance costs, the center’s deed is to eventually be handed over to the city at no charge.
“Legislative findings, the OPC’s undeniable public benefits, and the City’s retained ownership and control of the site doom this alternative public trust theory,” the city argued.
The city claimed it is speculative to believe the center will be used for partisan politics, adding government regularly funds private programs in which recipients voice their views.
The city contended Illinois law has long maintained parks are not restricted to trees and grass, but can also include museums, galleries and zoos. The city pointed to the Museum of Science and Industry, the Shedd Aquarium and the DuSable Museum of African American History, as examples of such attractions in Chicago parks.
Regarding the aquarium, the city said the attraction was established in 1925 by a private society on ground “reclaimed from the waters of Lake Michigan” and that “form a part of Grant Park.”
A status hearing is scheduled for Dec. 5.
Protect Our Parks is represented by the Chicago firm of Roth Fioretti.
The park district is represented by the Chicago firm of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella.
The city of Chicago is represented by corporate counsel and the Chicago firm of Mayer Brown.