A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit aimed to block the construction of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park, clearing a hurdle—temporarily—to the Obama Foundation’s goal of breaking ground later this year.
The suit was brought by environmental activist group Protect Our Parks (POP) in May of last year against the City and the Chicago Park District for allowing the Obama Foundation, a private organization, to engage in what POP claimed was an “illegal” grab of public parkland. The Obama Foundation was not charged in the suit.
Federal judge John Blakey had allowed parts of the suit to proceed in February after the City’s attorneys asked him to dismiss the suit. After hearing final arguments on Tuesday, Blakely ruled in favor of the City’s arguments, stating that the OPC’s construction in Jackson Park was not a violation of the public trust doctrine.
“The facts are clear in this case and the law is more settled than the parties are suggesting,” Blakey said at the hearing, according to Chicago Tribune.
Mark Roth, the attorney representing POP, said in court that the group plans to appeal the ruling. POP president Herbert Caplan said that the ruling is “not the end of the case.”
Community activist groups also decried the ruling, including Jackson Park Watch, a Hyde Park non-profit organization seeking to protect natural land in Jackson Park. The organization’s co-founder Margaret Schmid told Crain’s Chicago Business that the ruling was “a narrow interpretation of what role the judge should play in such a conflict.”
“There will be an appeal, and this is far from over,” Schmid added.
Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement that the ruling marks “a significant step forward in this historic project and for our entire city.”
CEO of the Obama Foundation David Simas said in a statement following the ruling that he is “grateful” to supporters of the OPC, adding that the Foundation’s vision of the OPC “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.”
Erin Adams, president of local neighborhood association South Side Neighbors for Hope, said that she’s “thrilled” by the ruling. Adams, who was at the hearing, is a biology professor at the University and lives in South Shore. She has written op-eds expressing strong support for keeping the OPC in Jackson Park.
Adams said she believes that because Blakey allowed the case to proceed and then listened to both parties’ cases before dismissing the suit, the appeal process for Protect Our Parks will now be difficult.
Not all faculty members support the OPC's location in Jackson Park. Nearly 200 faculty members have signed onto a letter expressing concerns over the OPC's location on public parkland.
Details of the Ruling
The court’s ruling centered on two of POP’s main arguments. First, POP argued that Jackson Park cannot be given for use to a private entity by the City in accordance with public trust doctrine because it was previously submerged land.
Public trust doctrine originates from the common law principle of maintaining public access to navigable waterways for commerce, which in Illinois includes submerged land a mile outward from Chicago into Lake Michigan. This land cannot be transferred from the state to a private entity, as it would constitute “private encroachment and interruption,” against public trust doctrine.
Blakey responded in the ruling, “Plaintiffs invite this Court to find that because the OPC site may have been submerged approximately 11,000 years ago, it constitutes ‘formerly submerged’ land for purposes of the public trust doctrine. Respectfully, the Court declines the Plaintiff’s invitation.”
POP’s second major argument called for “heightened scrutiny” in this case due to potential conflicts of interest between the Obamas and the City of Chicago that calls into question the public benefit of the OPC.
Blakey was unconvinced. “Plaintiffs attempt to twist this public benefit into a private purpose, arguing that the Museum’s mission merely ‘seeks to preserve and enhance the legacy of the former President and his wife’ rather than benefit the public,” he argued.
He dismissed POP’s assessment of the Obamas’ intentions behind the OPC, stating, “This Court cannot accept such a mischaracterization.”
While the lawsuit was under consideration, UChicago law professors filed amicus briefs in support of the two opposing sides of the case. Two of the professors, Lior Strahilevitz and Richard Epstein, have also publicly debated the lawsuit.
Strahilevitz, who supports the construction of the OPC in Jackson Park, said he believed the ruling “was a really thoughtful opinion...and I think it’s 100 percent correct.” He added that he agreed with Blakey’s decision to let the lawsuit proceed to the end instead of dismissing it early on, so that facts of the case could be settled.
The evidence discovery process showed that “all Protect Our Parks was able to do was to make allegations,” Strahilevitz said.
Epstein, who doesn’t support the location in Jackson Park, said he is “disappointed by the outcome and disappointed that the strongest arguments that I made [in the amicus brief] were not discussed by the judge.”
Epstein said that evidence showing the costs of the OPC in Jackson Park—including the $175 million that the City has to pay in road changes and potential subsequent traffic disruptions—were not considered thoroughly enough.
Blakey said in his ruling that he would not “revisit the cost-benefit assessments of state and local lawmakers.”
Epstein said he also believes that public trustees—the City and Chicago Park District in this case—are under the same obligations as private trustees to not give away the property that they hold in trust unless they obtain for the public something of equal or greater exchange. He said that the City violated its obligations as a trustee by granting the Obama Foundation a 99-year lease of the land for $10, which he sees as tantamount to a direct transfer of property.
The OPC still faces a separate federal review process, as Jackson Park is included on the National Register of Historic Places.
The slated geographical location of the center is not the only aspect of the OPC that has been disputed. Some local activists have long demanded the city pass a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) ordinance that would legally bind the OPC’s developers—the Obama Foundation, the City, and the University—to requirements meant to prevent displacement of local residents, such as rent control and job opportunities.
Following February’s city elections, in which local residents overwhelmingly voted in favor of a CBA ordinance in a non-binding referendum, Fifth Ward alderman Leslie Hairston—who before had opposed a CBA ordinance—recently announced that she and newly elected 20th Ward alderman Jeanette Taylor plan to introduce an ordinance in City Council in July.
Alex Goldenberg, an activist with community organization Southside Together Organizing for Power, which has long pushed for a CBA, said, “We are very happy that the Obama Center is definitely coming to the South Side and we are hopeful that the Obama Foundation will support the CBA ordinance that we’re working to push through City Council.”
Update, June 11, 10 p.m.: The article has been updated with the federal judge’s written ruling and information from additional interviews.