While stressing the ruling has nothing to do with the question of which side will ultimately win the fight over whether the Obama Presidential Center will be built in Jackson Park, a federal judge will allow that fight to continue to play out in court.
On Feb. 19, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey shot down an attempt by the city of Chicago and Chicago Park District to end the legal challenge to bring the project, celebrating the presidency and legacy of President Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House, to the historic park on the city’s South Side.
Blakey was appointed to the bench by Obama in 2014.
The decision marked a key win for the group known as Protect Our Parks and several individual plaintiffs who joined their names to the lawsuit against the city and park district.
The lawsuit had first landed in federal court in May 2018, when the plaintiffs formally accused the city and park district of engaging in a “short con shell game.” They accused city officials of effectively conspiring with the Obama Foundation, a private nonprofit organization, to build the Obama Center project on public park land and remake the park and surrounding area.
Three years earlier, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who had served as chief of staff for Obama during his first term as President, had announced the city’s support for the Obama Foundation’s plans to build the Obama Center 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.
However, the project generated pushback from the start, with residents concerned about the Obama Center’s impact on the surrounding neighborhoods and others concerned about its impact on the park itself. Opponents have particularly noted the project will not even be an official presidential library. Rather, the structure will instead be essentially a museum and monument focused on Obama himself, and operated by the Obama Foundation, with no external control from the federal government.
The complaint characterized this move as “an institutional bait-and-switch,” designed to grant legal cover for the transfer of control over 19 acres of prime Chicago park land, which by law must be held in the public trust for the benefit of the public, to a private organization, essentially at the expense of Chicago and Illinois taxpayers.
The lawsuit asserted the city’s actions stood as a violation of the public’s right to due process over the question of control of the park land.
The lawsuit claimed the project would “destroy the pristine open environment” of the park, opening it “to progressively more intrusive construction.”
Further, they argued allowing the Obama Center on public park land would violate the First Amendment rights of Chicago and Illinois taxpayers who may disagree with Obama’s politics, as it would essentially amount to taxpayer subsidization of the Obama Foundation and its political and social goals.
In response, the city asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing the plaintiffs lacked standing under the law to challenge the project in court.
In his ruling, Judge Blakey dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaints over the alleged “aesthetic and environmental harm” to Jackson Park that could follow from the Obama Center’s construction.
The judge also rejected the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims. He noted the operating agreement for the Obama Center prohibits using the center from promoting political campaigns or candidates. The judge, however, did not address the possibility the center could promote policies and issues which Obama championed.
The judge also said it is too soon to speculate over how the Obama Center might be used politically in coming years, and whether the Obama Foundation would risk violating its operating agreement to promote political goals.
However, Judge Blakey sided with the plaintiffs on their due process claims, saying their status as taxpayers and residents of Chicago and Illinois grants them the standing they need to press those claims on the so-called public trust doctrine.
“Here, Individual Plaintiffs allege that Defendants have placed Jackson Park - land held in the public trust - in imminent danger of alteration, and thus that Defendants are depriving them of their rights under the public trust doctrine without procedural due process,” Blakey wrote in his opinion. “Therefore, Individual Plaintiffs, as Illinois taxpayers and beneficiaries of the public trust, have established Article III standing as to their Due Process claim under the public trust doctrine.”
Blakey extended that ruling to include Protect Our Parks, as well.
Blakey opened his decision by noting the “order does not address the true facts of this case. Nor does it decide the legal merits of Plaintiffs’ key claims.”
Protect Our Parks is represented by the firm of Roth Fioretti LLC, of Chicago.
The city of Chicago is represented by attorneys from its Department of Law, and the firm of Mayer Brown LLP.
The Chicago Park District is represented by the firm of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella P.C.
The case has also generated the attention of a number of outside groups, as well, several of which have filed friend-of-the-court, or amicus, briefs either in support of or opposition to the project.
Following Blakey’s ruling, the Washington, D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation cheered the Feb. 19 decision. The Foundation earlier had filed an amicus brief opposing the project.
In a prepared statement, Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, said he believed the controversy could be ended if the Obama Foundation would choose to relocate the project site to “vacant and/or city-owned land on the South Side … or better still, land owned by the University of Chicago, which submitted the winning bid to host the Center.”
“The Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago created this controversy by insisting on the confiscation of public parkland,” Birnbaum said in the statement.