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Obama Center prep work to kick off in Jackson Park; new lawsuit seeks to block construction

The new federal lawsuit follows an earlier failed legal battle to prevent the Obama Center from locating in Jackson Park, on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot listens as Obama Foundation Board Chair Marty Nesbitt speaks during a news conference at the Museum of Science and Industry to announce the start of foundation work for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on the South Side, Wednesday morning, April 14, 2021.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot listens as Obama Foundation Board Chair Marty Nesbitt speaks during a news conference Wednesday to announce the start of foundation work for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

As city and state leaders announced the start of the first construction work related to the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on Wednesday, a new federal lawsuit was filed seeking to prevent building the complex on historic public land.

The lawsuit is a second try for Protect Our Parks, Inc., and while it is coming very late in the game, it’s too soon to say if it will result in any delays, with some prep work — moving sewer and utility lines — to start Monday with the groundbreaking for the complex targeted for September.

An earlier legal bid by the same park preservation organization to prevent the Obama Center from locating in Jackson Park, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, failed.

The new suit has a different legal approach, arguing that the federal review — mandated because the center was in the historic park — was flawed, and City Hall, which had a major role in overseeing the review, “rubber stamped” whatever the Obama Foundation wanted.

“The political forces exerted by Defendants City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District that were four-square behind the Obama Foundation, led to the wholesale delegation of decision-making authority,” the lawsuit said.

Unlike the first suit, where the plaintiffs were not South Siders, which gave rise to criticism, this time the parties bringing the case all are based near Jackson Park.

The defendants include Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, City Hall, the Chicago Park District and the Obama Foundation.

City Hall’s “Department of Law is reviewing the complaint and does not have a comment at this time,” spokesperson Kristen Cabanban said.

An Obama Foundation spokesperson said, “the Foundation is prepared to vigorously defend against this lawsuit, and we continue to look ahead to a groundbreaking in the fall of this year.”

Groundbreaking for the center has been delayed for years because of the federal review, needed because Obama decided to place his center in a historic park. The review started in 2017 and recently concluded.

Meanwhile, at a news conference held outside on the grounds of the Museum of Science and Industry to spotlight the beginning of construction related to the center, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “There has never been a better time to invest on the South Side.”

The master plan calls for closing roads in the park so the Obama Center and MSI are connected into one campus from Stony Island Avenue east to Lake Michigan.

Foundation Board Chair Marty Nesbitt, at the news conference, said ex-President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle will attend the groundbreaking and “they will spend time here at the center.” The Obamas never returned to live in Chicago after they left the White House.

While the multi-building presidential complex covers 19.3 acres of the park, the overall plan that developed calls for a massive retooling of adjacent roads running in and around the park, including closing Cornell Drive between Hayes Drive and 59th Street.

Lake Shore Drive and Stony Island Avenue will be widened to take on the anticipated extra traffic.

Construction has started on a new track and field facility near South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street near Jackson Park to make way for the Obama Presidential Center on the South Side, Wednesday morning, April 14, 2021.
Construction has begun on a new track and field facility near South Stony Island Avenue and East 63rd Street near Jackson Park to make way for the Obama Presidential Center.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

While Obama is raising money through his foundation to pay for building his center — estimated to cost about $500 million — there is also substantial public spending in the pipeline related to the presidential complex.

Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker rolled out a $200 million package of park and infrastructure work — some previously announced — and programs to spark economic development on the South Side, where Michelle Obama was raised and Barack Obama started his political career as a state senator. Most of the money is from the state with the city putting up an unspecified amount.

Lightfoot said there will be a push for some federal funds to help pay for the projects.

The initial transportation improvements in and around Jackson Park will be funded through $174 million of state money.

Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly said work to reroute existing sewer and electrical utilities on the site of the future Obama Center is scheduled to begin Monday.

Kelly also said construction of a long awaited eight-lane running track and field is nearing completion at the south end of Jackson Park. It’s slated to open this summer.

“We urge others to follow our lead and bet on the South Side,” Lightfoot said.

Children walk through green space in Jackson Park slated to become the Obama Presidential Center.
Children walk through green space in Jackson Park slated to become the Obama Presidential Center.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

There has been an enormous concern that residents around the Obama Center will be priced out of their homes, and already real estate prices have increased in anticipation of the center.

Lightfoot announced a $10 million Woodlawn Revolving Loan fund that will provide financial support to help rehabilitate existing affordable housing for South Side residents.

She also announced a $100 million commitment to overhaul the western approach to the Obama Center on 63rd Street. A “complete” renovation of the Green Line station and a new federally qualified health care center are also planned.

Banks participating in the Woodlawn Revolving Loan Fund are, according to City Hall, JP Morgan Chase Bank, CIBC, Fifth Third Bank, Byline Bank, First Midwest Bank, Wintrust Bank and TCF Bank.

Most of the tree cutting needed to clear space for the presidential center will begin in the fall so as not to disrupt bird migration patterns.