A federal judge this week cleared the way for former President Barack Obama to begin building his presidential center on Chicago’s South Side, overruling the objections of community groups who said they were being steamrolled.
Environmentalists and park supporters had sued to block the $500 million project, arguing it was a misuse of valuable land and a violation of public space laws.
But District Judge John Robert Blakey ruled Tuesday that their case didn’t hold up.
“The facts do not warrant a trial, and construction should commence without delay,” Judge Blakey wrote in his opinion. “This case is terminated.”
The Obama Foundation hailed the ruling.
“Our vision for the Obama Presidential Center has always been one where the location reinforces the project’s core aims: a celebration of history, a place of connection and engagement for the public, and an investment in community,” said foundation CEO David Sims.
The center will also serve as an economic engine for Chicago’s distressed South Side, Mr. Sims said.
The project’s opponents vowed to continue their fight, reiterating their claim the foundation moved arm in arm with “pliant officials” rather than neighbors.
Judge Blakey, an Obama appointee, said his ruling was in keeping with precedent, and he quoted the Illinois Supreme Court as saying the judiciary should defer to the legislature when it seeks “to encroach to some extent upon lands heretofore considered inviolate to change.”
In this case, the Obama Presidential Center would occupy a place in Jackson Park the city’s park district sold to Chicago for $1. The Illinois legislature carved out an exception to the state’s non-development rules for “presidential centers,” and the City Council approved the foundation’s plan by a 47-1 vote last May.
Under the terms of the arrangement, the Obama Foundation will pay Chicago $10 to have the land, a roughly 20-acre lot, for 99 years. The presidential center will be built and operated with private money, and although the city would own the buildings, its management would be exclusively the foundation’s domain.
Plans call for four separate buildings in the park, geometrically shaped and light in color, along with an underground parking garage, in a project estimated to cost about $500 million. The Obama library, which would house his papers and documents from his time in office, would be in another location.
Jackson Park is a 550-acre strip along the shore of Lake Michigan that sits below Hyde Park, the tony South Side enclave that includes the University of Chicago’s campus, and is the neighborhood that gave Mr. Obama his political start.
Famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead helped lay out Jackson Park when it served as host to the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Protect Our Parks, a local outfit involved in fighting the presidential center, urged the foundation to use a less prestigious piece of land, a privately owned lot just southwest of Jackson Park.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation, another group opposed to the project, said Judge Blakey’s ruling would not be the final word.
“Though the carefully orchestrated local approvals process has been enabled by plain municipal officials, there are still federal-level reviews underway for this nationally significant work of landscape architecture,” said Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation.
Chicago city attorneys argue the presidential center will serve a public purpose, in keeping with the exception created by the state legislature, and that the project had been vetted and approved by officials before the council’s vote.
In their consideration of the proposal, Chicago officials said they found the proposed OPC would “increase recreational opportunities on the South Side of Chicago, bring more visitors to Jackson Park and the surrounding communities, increase the use of surrounding open space and improve safety,” according to Judge Blakey’s ruling.
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