Federal lawsuit filed to block Obama Center in Jackson Park

SHARE Federal lawsuit filed to block Obama Center in Jackson Park

Model of the proposed Obama Center before a meeting with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Friday, Jan. 12, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A federal lawsuit seeking to block construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park was filed Monday by public parks activists against the city of Chicago and the Chicago Park District.

The suit comes as the Chicago Plan Commission on Thursday meets to consider applications for zoning and other approvals needed for the project submitted by the Obama Foundation, Chicago Park District and Chicago Department of Transportation.

The commission will also take up a resolution authorizing a long-term ground lease for 19.3 acres in Jackson Park from the city to the Barack Obama Foundation. Though the proposed lease as of Friday was not made public, it is likely only a token amount of rent will be charged.

The City Council in March 2015 approved an ordinance for Chicago Park District land in Jackson Park to be transferred to the City of Chicago to lease to the Obama Foundation.

But a rewrite of that ordinance is now necessary.

The Jackson Park boundaries for the center spelled out in that 2015 legislation have changed, with the project moved further north and east. For the project to go forward, the plan commission and City Council must approve those new boundaries.

All these matters dovetail into the federal lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks, Inc., with parks activist Charlotte Adelman among the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit seeks a court order to “bar the Park District and the City from approving the building of the Presidential Center and from conveying any interest in or control of the Jackson Park site to the Foundation.”

Among the reasons cited in the lawsuit to support the request for a court order:

  • An “institutional bait and switch.” The original purpose of the transfer of public park land to the Foundation – a private non-government entity – was to house an official federal Obama Federal Library. However, that purpose no longer exists. Obama decided his center will not include his official presidential library. The federal National Records and Archives Administration will run it from someplace else.
  • Transfer of park land to a non-governmental private entity violates the park district code.
  • The park district and the city will receive only token rent for the land and the Park District Act law “does not authorize the Park District itself to transfer valuable public trust land for virtually no compensatory return.”
  • Public park land is “prohibited by law” from being turned over to a non-governmental private entity for private use.

The law firm for the plaintiff is Roth Fioretti. Partner Robert Fioretti is a former Chicago alderman who challenged Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015 before endorsing Emanuel in the runoff. More recently, Fioretti was defeated in a March Democratic primary bid for Cook County Board president.

In an emailed statement, mayoral spokesman Grant Klinzman said, “The Obama Presidential Center is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest hundreds of millions of dollars that will create good jobs on the South Side, bring our communities together and honor the legacy of Chicago’s favorite son and daughter. While some choose to stand in the way of progress for the South Side, we are focused on making progress in every community in Chicago.”

Juanita Irizarry, executive director Friends of the Parks, also released a statement, saying officials with the group welcome the Obama Center to the South Side “but disagree with the choice to locate it on public parkland rather than vacant land across the street from Washington Park.”

“While we are not involved with this lawsuit in any way, it is an indication of the fact the Friends of the Parks is not alone in our concern about Chicago’s parks being seen as sites for real estate development,” Irizarry said.

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