“Institutional Bait and Switch”: Judge Rules Lawsuit Against Obama’s Plan to Build Library on Park Land to Continue

[Anna Giaritelli | Washington Examiner] A federal judge on Tuesday dealt a blow to President Barack Obama’s presidential center in Chicago by allowing a lawsuit against the project to continue.

Protect Our Parks, Inc., along with conservation and historical groups, sued last May to stop the center from being built on historic, lakefront parkland in Chicago. The Obama Foundation is trying to build a $500 million presidential center on that land, and opponents are trying to keep the project out of Jackson Park, which is nearly as old as Central Park in New York City. 

“We are not opposing construction of the Obama Presidential Center, as long as it’s not in historic Jackson Park,” said Herbert Caplan, Protect Our Parks founder.

That group and other opponents are trying to stop the Obama Foundation from building a 230-feet-tall center in the park. And on Tuesday, Judge John Robert Blakey of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois rejected a motion by the city of Chicago to dismiss the lawsuit, allowing it to continue.

The Obama Presidential Center is being proposed on federal land that was deemed by the government in 2012 to be inappropriate for construction. The groups said the foundation could have purchased private land or gone about getting public land differently, but chose to lock down 20 acres of Jackson Park on Chicago’s south side. 

“The Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago created this controversy by insisting on the confiscation of public parkland,” Charles A. Birnbaum, president and CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, said in a statement. “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.” 

The judge’s ruling means the hearing determining the parameters for discovery in the case will take place Feb. 27. Because discovery may take months, the judge’s decision will delay construction on the center even if it is later approved. 

Groundbreaking on the project was already pushed back last July following a second delay in the federal review process of the request for the public land. 

The Obama Foundation had originally proposed in 2015 having National Archives oversee the project when it was supposed to be just a library. But the project evolved into the current $500 million development, and the lawsuit called the plan changes an “institutional bait and switch.” 

The Chicago City Council voted last June to allow 19.3 acres of Chicago Park District land in Jackson Park to be leased by the city to the Obama Foundation. The park is near the Museum of Science and Industry, Lake Michigan, and the eastern edge of the university campus, where Obama taught constitutional law. 

The Obama Foundation has not disclosed how much it will have to pay for the land or why it selected the historic land instead of privately owned lots for sale. But two conservation experts with knowledge of the legal land transfer process told the Washington Examinerthe city will charge Obama close to nothing for the land. 

The lawsuit also stated the Park District does not have the right “to transfer valuable public trust land for virtually no compensatory return.” 

[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Anna Giaritelli and originally published at the Washington Examiner. Title changed by P&P.]

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