‘We welcome the Obama Presidential Center to Chicago’s South Side but disagree with the choice to locate it on public parkland…’
(Tony Briscoe, Chicago Tribune) A federal lawsuit filed by a Chicago nonprofit in an attempt to block the Obama Presidential Center from being built in Jackson Park accuses organizers of pulling an “institutional bait and switch” by shifting the center’s purpose away from being a true presidential library.
Protect Our Parks Inc. also claims in its lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court on Monday, that the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago don’t have the authority to transfer public parkland to nongovernmental entity such as the Obama Foundation.
It has long been expected that the Park District would sell the land to the city for a nominal amount and the city would enter into a long-term lease with the Obama Foundation.
The lawsuit, which also names three Chicago-area residents as plaintiffs, argues that such a maneuver would violate state law and represents “a short con shell game, a corrupt scheme to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab.”
“The City and Park District clearly realize and fully understand that this established law precludes the Park District from arbitrarily transferring possession, use and control of this dedicated ‘open, clear and free’ public parkland in Jackson Park to a private nongovernmental … entity’s self-determined use,” the complaint says.
The plaintiffs accuse the Obamas of committing an about-face on original plans for the Jackson Park site to be home to a national presidential library that would hold historic documents and archives from Barack Obama’s presidency under the National Archives and Records Administration’s supervision.
In a statement released Monday, the city framed the lawsuit as a roadblock to economic progress for the South Side.
“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,” the statement read.
Protect Our Parks is not as well known as Chicago-based Friends of the Parks, which filed a federal lawsuit as part of a successful effort to block a proposal to put the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art along the lakefront south of Soldier Field.
Friends of the Parks has opted against taking action against the Obama center for legal and financial reasons, but also because of the political challenge of taking on Obama in the town where he built is career.
“Friends of the Parks has always said that we welcome the Obama Presidential Center to Chicago’s South Side but disagree with the choice to locate it on public parkland rather than vacant land across the street from Washington Park,” Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, said in a statement Monday. “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.”
The litigation comes ahead of a Thursday Chicago Plan Commission meeting to discuss modifications to the boundaries of the Obama Presidential Center, in addition to the long-term grounds lease for the Obama Foundation to begin construction.
The center, which has been slated for a 19-acre plot on the western edge of Jackson Park, is expected to open in 2021.
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