Amicus briefs touting, opposing Obama Center Jackson Park plan stoke court fight

By Jonathan Bilyk | Jan 16, 2019

Jackson Park, Chicago   By Schan05 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

As a federal judge weighs the fate of the legal challenge to the plan to build the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park, scholars and others have lined up in recent weeks to submit their opinions on the controversy, hoping to use their insights to tip the judge’s scale.

On Jan. 15, opponents of the Obama Center filed three friend-of-the-court, or amicus, briefs, which asserted allowing the project to move forward as planned would violate the “public trust” they say the city should use when deciding who can build essentially private facilities on public land. One of the briefs asks the court to take a closer look at the project, specifically because of the politically cozy relationship between former President Barack Obama and the people who run Chicago City Hall, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as Obama’s first chief of staff.

Those briefs came weeks after supporters of the Obama Center project, including operators of the city’s 11 museums on public land, filed amicus briefs arguing the project’s historical and cultural significance – celebrating the presidency and legacy of President Barack Obama – makes the project easily pass the public trust test.

The case has been in Chicago federal court since last May, when the group known as Protect Our Parks filed suit to block the Obama Center project, asserting the park should be protected from private development.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel  

That lawsuit followed moves by the city of Chicago, the Chicago Park District and state lawmakers to clear the way for the Obama Foundation to build a $500 million presidential museum to memorialize the two-term former president, a Chicagoan who rose to become the first African-American U.S. president.

Under the proposal, the Obama Center campus would sit on 19 acres of the 543-acre Jackson Park on the city’s South Side. The site has been backed by the former president and First Lady Michelle Obama, and project promoters have said they believe the center will be a boon to Chicago, helping to “revitalize” Jackson Park and the surrounding region.

The city has moved to dismiss Protect Our Parks’ legal challenge, noting the land would technically remain public, as the Obama Foundation has pledged to hand over title to the land after construction has been completed.

In support of this view, the court has received several amicus briefs.

Among these, a brief signed by representatives of 11 museums located on Chicago Park District property, including the Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium, asserted building museums on Chicago park land is a “time-honored tradition.” They asserted the Obama Center would operate under terms similar to those imposed upon the other museums.

“The 11 current Park Museums offer benefits to the public, the City, and the Park District,” the museums wrote in the brief filed Nov. 28. “The Obama Presidential Center aims to continue this rich tradition by laying roots in Jackson Park - becoming the 12th museum in a park in the City.

“The Park Museums believe the Obama Presidential Center will be a cultural and economic treasure for Chicago that will bring new amenities and positive development to the surrounding community, boost the local economy, and serve as a magnet for visitors to the City and the region. It will serve as an enduring and powerful symbol of the promise of America and the American Dream.”

Briefs filed in support of the plan also included an amicus from a group of seven Chicago area property law professors who asserted legal arguments against the project were on “shaky ground.” They asserted courts have historically deferred to lawmakers to determine whether a project planned for public parkland, like the Obama Center, should be considered in the public interest.

In this case, they noted both the Chicago City Council and Illinois General Assembly have signed on to support the project.

“… One notices a pattern in the history of public trust litigation in the Illinois courts,” the group of seven professors wrote. “The construction of museums, a convention center, a water treatment facility, a renovated football stadium, a public school, a golf driving range, a highway bridge, and a wider Lake Shore Drive were consistent with the public trust doctrine.

“In contrast, the construction of an expanded steel plant and a private harbor on the lake to benefit a private, for-profit railway corporation were not. A museum recounting the history and administration of the first African-American President obviously falls within the first category, not the second.”

In response, plaintiffs presented amicus briefs seeking to poke holes in the supporters’ arguments.

University of Chicago Professor Richard Epstein argued his colleagues’ assertions of unanimity among scholars on the public trust question is an overreach. He said the question at the center of the case should be “the level of scrutiny that the courts should apply to any transfer of public lands by the City of Chicago to a private group, the Obama Foundation, for its private purposes.”

In this case, Epstein argued the standard imposed on City Hall should be “far more exacting,” particularly because of the “huge conflict of interest that arises from the close and enduring connections that former President (sic) has with key City officials.”

“Former President Obama is one of the most powerful and influential personages in Chicago life, with deep ties to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and with many close connections to key city public officials,” Epstein wrote. “His enormous clout cries out, not for deference, but for searching scrutiny.”

In response to the 11 Chicago museums’ brief, Washington, D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, which advocates for the “informed stewardship” of “significant cultural landscapes,” questioned the lack of any mention of Jackson Park’s historical significance in the museums’ brief. They particularly noted the lack of any mention of Jackson Park’s designer, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also helped design New York’s Central Park.

The museums’ brief “mentions ‘parkland’ some 46 times but never speaks of Olmsted, his historic design or the National Register of Historic Places,” the TCLF brief said.

“Such repeated references to building the OPC on generic ‘Chicago parkland’ (as the Defendants’ brief often terms it) are akin to describing plans to remodel the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio as alterations to ‘Chicago housing.’”

Further the TCLF brief chides the University of Chicago for first proposing to build the Obama Center in Jackson Park at all, saying if Columbia University in New York had similarly proposed to build the site on 20 acres of Central Park “the proposal would have been immediately derided and regarded as ludicrous.”

Both Epstein and the TCLF advocate for the Obama Center to be built elsewhere on the South Side, particularly on a site at 55th and Garfield, adjacent to Washington Park – an alternative site included in the University of Chicago’s bid package to the Obama Foundation.

“The public benefits to the City come from the location of the OPC in Chicago, not from its location in Jackson Park,” Epstein wrote.

U.S. District Judge Robert Blakey has set a briefing schedule which could produce a ruling on the city’s motion to dismiss in mid-February.

Protect Our Parks is represented by the Chicago firm of Roth Fioretti.

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Organizations in this Story

Chicago Park District City of Chicago Roth Fioretti, LLC The Obama Foundation The University of Chicago U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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