Judge: Plan to build Obama museum in Jackson Park should not be delayed, dismisses legal challenge

By Jonathan Bilyk | Jun 11, 2019

Former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama look out over Lake Michigan at downtown Chicago.   Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Obama Foundation and its supporters in Chicago City Hall have notched a big win in the battle over whether to build a museum paying homage to the legacy of former President Barack Obama in Chicago’s Jackson Park.

On June 11, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey dismissed a lawsuit filed by the group known as Protect Our Parks, challenging the city of Chicago’s approval of the plan to bring the Obama Presidential Center to the historic park on the city’s South Side.

Blakey, a former Cook County and federal prosecutor, was appointed to his post on the federal bench by Obama in 2014.

The judge said he believed the Obama Center, while focusing solely on the legacy of the Obamas and being operated by the Obama Foundation, still qualified as a public purpose, qualifying under state law to use the public park land.

U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey   University of Notre Dame

He compared it to the development of Soldier Field, which he said primarily benefited the Chicago Bears, yet still passed legal muster because the redevelopment of the Soldier Field site brought other, public benefits, as well.

“In short, if improvements to a football stadium sufficiently benefit the public, the (Obama Presidential Center) must, too,” Judge Blakey wrote.

The lawsuit had been pending before Blakey since 2018, when the Parks’ group formally accused the city and Chicago Park District of engaging in a “short con shell game.” They said city officials and the Obama Foundation had effectively conspired to build the Obama Center on public park land and remake the park and surrounding area.

Three years earlier, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, had announced the city’s support for the Obama Center project. 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, opponents have challenged the project, questioning the Obama Center’s impact on the surrounding neighborhoods and others concerned about its impact on the park itself. Opponents have particularly noted the Center will not even be an official presidential library, but would essentially be a monument focused on Obama himself, operated by the Obama Foundation, with no external control from the federal government.

The Parks’ group said the move to keep the federal government out of the project was “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, at taxpayer expense.

Judge Blakey, however, said the project doesn’t need to be publicly owned and operated by a public organization to qualify as a project benefiting the public. Rather, he said, the public trust doctrine should be interpreted to mean the project should only exclude a private entity’s involvement, if there is “no corresponding public benefit.”

The judge said the OPC would offer “a multitude of benefits to the public,” including “a range of cultural, artistic, and recreational opportunities – including an educational museum, branch of the Chicago Public Library, and space for large-scale athletic events – as well as provide increased access to other areas of Jackson Park and the Museum of Science and Industry.”

The judge also rejected the Parks’ group’s attempt to argue the Obama Center plan should be held to a higher standard because it would sit on “formerly submerged” land, which is protected under Illinois law through the so-called public trust doctrine.

The plaintiffs argued the land had been submerged thousands of years ago, and should be protected as “formerly submerged.”

The judge, however, said he believed the law should be interpreted to refer to land reclaimed from Lake Michigan since 1818, when Illinois became a state. The judge said a map from the Illinois State Archives indicates as recently as 1822, the Obama Center site stood above the level of Lake Michigan.

“Plaintiffs invite this Court to find that because the OPC site may have been submerged approximately 11,000 years ago, it constitutes ‘formerly submerged’ land for purposes of the public trust doctrine,” Judge Blakey wrote. “Respectfully, this Court declines Plaintiffs’ invitation…

“The Illinois Supreme Court has held that the date of Illinois’ admission into the Union serves as the date it ‘became vested with the title to the beds of all navigable lakes and bodies of water within its borders.’

“Put differently, this Court must ask whether land was submerged as of the date Illinois achieved statehood.”

The judge said these facts doom the Parks’ group’s arguments and should allow the city to avoid a trial and “construction should commence without delay.”

Protect Our Parks has been represented by the firm of Roth Fioretti LLC, of Chicago. Attorney Mark Roth did not reply Tuesday to questions from the Cook County Record regarding the judge’s ruling.

However, in an emailed response, Herb Caplan, of Protect Our Parks, said his group intends to appeal the decision “all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.”

The city of Chicago has been represented by attorneys from its Department of Law and the firm of Mayer Brown LLP, of Chicago.

The Chicago Park District is represented by the firm of Burke, Warren, McKay & Serritella P.C., of Chicago.

The case has drawn large interest from outside the city of Chicago, as well, including from groups dedicated to the protection of park land and historical sites. A number of organizations have filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting and opposing the Obama Center.

On the opposing side, The Cultural Landscape Foundation said the ruling was “disappointing.”

However, CLF president and CEO Charles Birnbaum said the project still must undergo a number of reviews, including on the federal level.

“Though the carefully orchestrated local approvals process has been enabled by pliant municipal officials, there are still federal-level reviews underway for this nationally significant work of landscape architecture that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places,” Birnbaum said, referring to Jackson Park.

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Organizations in this Story

City of Chicago Mayer Brown Roth Fioretti LLC The Obama Foundation U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois

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