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Lightfoot to continue to defend city in Obama Presidential Center legal fight while still pressing for benefits deal

The oral arguments coming up so soon in Lightfoot’s tenure highlights the complex road ahead for her if she intends to make good on her pledge to negotiate a community benefits agreement with the Obama Presidential Foundation.  

Former President Barack Obama pointing out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center during a 2017 community.
Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center at the South Shore Cultural Center on May 3, 2017. 
Scott Olson/Getty Images file photo

WASHINGTON — Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration will continue to defend the city against a federal lawsuit aimed at blocking construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park — with a hearing on Tuesday — even as she is seeking a community benefits deal with the Obama Foundation.

Oral arguments will take place Tuesday morning before U.S. District Court Judge Robert Blakey on a motion by the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District to resolve the case in their favor.

No matter the outcome, the losing side is expected to appeal.

The oral arguments coming up so soon in Lightfoot’s tenure — she took office May 20 — highlights the complex road ahead for her if she intends to make good on her pledge to negotiate a community benefits agreement with the Obama Foundation.

Former President Barack Obama has said he opposes a community benefits agreement because the existence of the center on the South Side that spawned his political career – and where former first lady Michelle was raised — will be a strong enough economic engine to lift up the surrounding community.

Lightfoot is not swayed by that argument.

I asked Lightfoot press secretary Anel Ruiz about the lawsuit — and if there would be any changes in legal strategy with a new mayor — and received this reply:

“Mayor Lightfoot and her administration support plans for the Obama Presidential Center and the incredible economic benefits it will bring to the South Side. As the project moves forward, the administration will be working closely with the Obama Foundation to ensure community residents equitably share the benefits of this significant investment.”

This nuanced reply omits specific reference to the lawsuit, a sign to me that Lightfoot is leaving her options open by staying the legal course charted by the Emanuel administration. However, I wonder whether she is giving up leverage to jolt the foundation to negotiate.

Or maybe the message has already been received.

A foundation spokesman said in a statement, “The Obama Foundation looks forward to working with Mayor Lightfoot, City Council, and other elected officials on efforts related to housing, education, and other issues we agree are vital to the revitalization of this community. We also look forward to working with the many community organizations and local groups that have long been doing this work across Chicago.”

While the foundation is not a direct party to the case, the city and Park District are defending the interests of the foundation against Protect Our Parks, the small group of park activists that filed the lawsuit on May 14, 2018.

When it comes to the lawsuit, there is no daylight between the foundation and the city and Park District. Under Emanuel, the city hired Lightfoot’s former law firm, Mayer Brown LLP to bolster City Hall lawyers on the case.

No one disputes that an Obama Center would boost the South Side economy. At issue is locating it in Jackson Park, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, instead of someplace else.

Groundbreaking on the Obama Center has been delayed because of the lawsuit and a long-running federal review mandated because the center will be in a historic park. The city is overseeing much of that review process.

Margaret Schmid, the co-founder of Jackson Park Watch, which has raised numerous concerns about the development, wants Lightfoot to “pause” and analyze on her watch the impact of the center in Jackson Park and related roadway and golf course projects.

Schmid told me Monday, “No matter what the outcome of the hearing tomorrow, the Lightfoot administration has significant options. “For one, the mandatory federal review process, now on hold, has yet to be completed. The City has been managing that process in a manner that many have found rushed and arbitrary. The new administration could resume that process in a more open and even-handed way.”

Erin Adams, president of South Side Neighbors for Hope, which is supportive of the Obama Center in Jackson Park, said, “The lawsuit makes clear that the OPC in Chicago is not a done deal….There are different views about how best to create economic prosperity, but one thing is clear: without the OPC in Jackson Park, we lose a significant investment in the South Side, particularly for the communities of Woodlawn and South Shore, and a once in a lifetime opportunity to become the home to the presidential museum celebrating our nation’s first black president.”