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Legal fight over building the Obama Center in Jackson Park heats up

Obama Presidential Center rendering. | Obama Foundation

A rendering of the current design of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. | Obama Foundation

WASHINGTON — The battle over locating the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park heated up on Tuesday as opponents argued in federal court briefs that City Hall rigged the deal for what would be the first-ever complex of its kind allowed in a public park in Chicago.

A “friend of the court” brief by Preservation Chicago and Jackson Park Watch — which has taken a lead on watchdogging the development — provided the most detailed research yet to demonstrate that museums in Chicago on parkland were not originally carved out of existing parks.

The opposition brief is a reply to an earlier “friend of the court” filing by 11 museums — backing City Hall and the Chicago Park District — that there is a “long tradition of locating museums in Chicago public parks.”

Not exactly, the new filing argues.

The Obama complex will be new construction on 19.3 acres in Jackson Park, on the National Register of Historic Places since December 1972.

“Contrary to the express and/or implied arguments, the settings and context for the eleven Museums in the Park were all very different from that being proposed for the OPC.  The Museums in the Park utilized reclaimed historic buildings, or were constructed on sites of previously existing buildings that became available, or were constructed on former rail yards or empty non-parkland,” the Preservation Chicago and Jackson Park Watch brief said.

Their brief states the Museum of Science and Industry; the DuSable Museum of African American History; National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture; and the National Museum of Mexican Art took over existing buildings.

The  Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum were ” built on the existing footprints of prior buildings, which were demolished for a new museum structure.”

When the Field Museum of Natural History; Shedd Aquarium; Adler Planetarium; and the Chicago History Museum where constructed, the locations were not yet in the park system.

Those “friend of the court” filings come as the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District, defending the development, are asking a federal judge to dismiss the case. The next hearing is Feb. 14.

The Chicago Sun-Times has learned that the Obama Foundation, not a direct party in the lawsuit, reached out to the 13 other presidential foundations to file a friend of the court brief. The brief addressed a specific City Hall concern: whether it matters that the Obama Center will not house the official Obama Presidential Library.

Courtney Williams, the new Obama Foundation Communications Manager, said in an email, “We brought the case and some of the issues to the attention of the presidential center associations and asked if they were interested in submitting some information to the court in the form of an amicus brief. They said they were and took it from there.”

The museums in Chicago parks filed a brief explaining how they serve the community; the foundation, Williams confirmed, assisted in lining up lawyers at Jenner & Block to represent them for free.

A group of law professors filed a “friend of the court” brief taking on what is called the “public trust” legal issues backing the city and Park District.

Both sides now have friend of the court briefs in front of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Blakey in the case filed last year by a small group called Protect our Parks.

That the system was rigged in favor of the Obama Foundation from the start is an argument advanced in a friend of the court brief for the Protect our Parks position authored by law professor Richard Epstein, who has academic homes at the University of Chicago and New York University.

Epstein, who is associated with the conservative Federalist Society and Hoover Institution, wrote that the outcome was pre-ordained in part because Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, was determined to carry out Obama’s demand for his presidential center to be located in Jackson Park.

That created a situation “rife with conflicts of interest,” Epstein wrote, creating a more urgent legal need for the case to be allowed to survive the motion to dismiss.

City Hall and the Chicago Park District have signed outside counsel in the case. Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella represent the Park District; City Hall added Mayer Brown LLP to supplement its in-house law department.