Jackson Park, Chicago, IL

Judge Greenlights Lawsuit Against Obama Presidential Center

On Tuesday, February 19, 2019, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey issued a ruling that the lawsuit recently brought by Protect Our Parks against the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District can proceed. The suit aims to stop construction of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in historic Jackson Park and asserts that the city violated the public’s right to due process when it entered an agreement that would allow the OPC to be built on some twenty acres of parkland.

The recent ruling upheld the plaintiffs’ due-process claims, confirming their legal standing as taxpayers and Chicago residents to bring the suit. As reported on January 17, TCLF filed one of three amici curiae briefs in support of the plaintiffs’ position. The ruling is a major victory for park advocates, potentially delaying construction of the OPC for months or years, if not relocating the project entirely. The OPC is concurrently the subject of federal-level reviews under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Jackson Park, Chicago, IL
Jackson Park, Chicago, IL - Photo © Eric Allix Rogers, 2017

TCLF’s President and CEO Charles Birnbaum issued the following statement after the ruling: “The Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago created this controversy by insisting on the confiscation of public parkland. The Obama Foundation could make this issue go away by using vacant and/or city-owned land on the South Side for the Obama Presidential Center (which is planned to be a private facility rather than a presidential library administered by the National Archives), or, better still, land owned by the University of Chicago, which submitted the winning bid to host the Center.”

At a subsequent hearing on February 27, Judge Blakey granted most of the plaintiffs' requests related to discovery, directing the City of Chicago to produce a variety of documents related to projected costs of the OPC, traffic and environmental analyses, and an analysis of the financial benefits to the Obama Foundation deriiving from the OPC. He told the defendants to identify a city official to be deposed by the plaintiffs with regard to the discovery documents, leaving open the possibility of additional depositions in the future. The judge also set dates for submiting further motions and responses, with May 30, 2019, established as the date for a hearing on the motions. When one of the defendants' attorneys expresed doubts about which documents the city is required to produce, Judge Blakey responded, "I will have to micro-manage your discovery.”

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, Jackson Park was originally designed by Olmsted and Vaux in 1871 as part of a contiguous group of three parks on Chicago’s South Side. Notably, it is the only intact park system that the duo designed outside of New York State. In 1893 the park became home to the World’s Columbian Exposition, after which the site was left a charred and toxic ruin in the wake of a series of fires. The site then reverted to parkland designed by Olmsted, Olmsted, & Eliot. Despite some alterations and additions, that 1895 Olmsted plan remains largely intact.