Jackson Park

Three New Amicus Briefs Strengthen Legal Challenge to Obama Presidential Center

Three “friends of the court” (amici curiae) briefs were filed in Federal Court on Tuesday, January 15, 2019, concerning a lawsuit by Protect Our Parks, Inc. (POP) that challenges the legality of using some 19.3 acres of Chicago’s historic Olmsted-designed Jackson Park for the site of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC; Case No. 18-cv-3424: Protect Our Parks, Inc. v. Chicago Park District and City of Chicago). The briefs were prompted, in part, by unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims in filings by the defendants, the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago, and other OPC promoters.

Jackson Park, Chicago, IL
Jackson Park, Chicago, IL - Photo courtesy Chicago Park District, 2015

One claim consistently made in support of confiscating public parkland for the OPC has been that there is a tradition of siting museums in the city’s parks. On November 28, 2018, eleven museums in Chicago filed an amici curiae brief arguing in favor of this ersatz museological manifest destiny. Two local advocacy groups, Preservation Chicago and Jackson Park Watch, filed an amici brief that systematically dismantled the museums’ assertion. Not one of the eleven museums—as the two groups carefully documented—was built anew on existing parkland. “The proposition that the circumstances of these museums and the OPC are similarly situated is simply untrue,” said Ward Miller, Preservation Chicago Executive Director. “Allowing construction of the OPC in Jackson Park would be a unique event that would set an ominous precedent for the preservation of Chicago’s public parks.”

As a quick reminder, Olmsted and Vaux originally designed Jackson Park in 1871 as part of a contiguous group of three parks on Chicago’s South Side. Notably, it is the only intact park system the duo designed outside of New York State. In 1893 Jackson Park became the site for the World’s Columbian Exposition. After the Exposition, the site was left a charred and toxic ruin following a series of fires but then reverted to parkland designed by Olmsted, Olmsted, & Eliot. Despite some alterations and additions, that 1895 Olmsted plan remains largely intact.

TCLF’s amicus curiae brief addressed several issues, including Olmsted’s design intent. TCLF cited Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1894 correspondence stating that the Museum of Science and Industry, which was already extant within the park, was to be the only “dominating object of interest” in the park and that “all other buildings and structures to be within the park boundaries are to be placed and planned exclusively with a view to advancing the ruling purpose of the park [and] they are to be auxiliary to and subordinate to the scenery of the park.” TCLF also cited the City of Chicago’s own 1999 South Lakefront Framework Plan that concluded “the original Olmsted design has served [Jackson] park well over time and should not be compromised by future plans.” Moreover, an official 2012 correspondence from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the body charged with protecting the State of Illinois’ cultural resources, declared that the park’s design “must be respected.”

Revised General Plan for Jackson Park, Chicago, IL
Revised General Plan for Jackson Park, Chicago, IL -

TCLF’s brief also called out assertions that the OPC would revitalize an “under-utilized” park, noting that the defendants “offer no data, use studies, or other documentation to indicate that the park’s recreational value is low or that it is underused and in need of revitalization.”

A brief submitted by Professor Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago Law School and the New York University Law School addressed the degree to which the OPC is subject to judicial review. As noted in a January 15, 2019, press release about all three of the filings, OPC proponents claim that “Under settled public trust law, the agreement between the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District to transfer 19.3 acres of parkland in historic Jackson Park to the non-profit entity the Obama Foundation to construct and operate a presidential center for a sum of $1 for 99 years is entirely appropriate and essentially not entitled to any judicial review.” Professor Epstein “argues that, to the contrary, the proposed transfer of property that comprises the OPC not only represents bad public policy, but also is in clear violation of the public trust doctrine.” Moreover, the “public trust doctrine impose[s] a far more exacting standard on the City given the inherent conflict of interests that arises from the close and enduring connections that the 44th President has with key officials in the City.  That standard requires that one look behind unsupported statements of benefits claimed to result from the OPC. Instead, one must also look at the massive dislocations and high costs of putting the project in the proposed location in Jackson Park. Applying the proper standard, the OPC as currently proposed fails the public trust test.”

The next court proceedings related to the case are scheduled for February 2019.

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