A Chicago 7 Most Endangered in 2017 and again in 2018, Preservation Chicago has consistently advocated for the protection of Jackson Park, a world-class historic landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux with contributions by Alfred Caldwell. Preservation Chicago does NOT oppose the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) being built in Chicago, but for many important and valid reasons, strongly prefers the 20-acre private facility to be constructed in a location other than historic Jackson Park.
“Make no bones about it. The proposed plans…will backhoe and destroy almost 20 acres of this legacy park land,” said Ward Miller, Executive Director of Preservation Chicago, said, warning of the dangerous precedent. “This green, leafy site will now be compromised…with three very large buildings, all on a concrete plaza, and a tall museum building which is over 200 feet tall. … No other presidential library is of this scale and magnitude.”
“New Yorkers wouldn’t allow this to happen to Central Park. We shouldn’t allow it to happen here,” said Miller. (Golden, Block Club Chicago, 1/18/19)
“Given this city’s rich and colorful history of graft, payola and insider dealing, Chicagoans are entitled to be enormously skeptical—and even maybe a tad bit cynical—when asked by our civic leaders to take certain things on faith,” according to the Crain’s Chicago Business Editorial Board on August 2, 2018. “But there’s another reason to wonder about the site selection: The University of Chicago-backed Jackson Park deal may not have been cut in the kind of smoke-filled backroom Chicago is notorious for, but it might as well have been. The public disclosures by the Emanuel administration, the Obama Foundation and the U of C have been about as transparent as cigar smoke.” (Crain’s Editorial Board, 8/2/18)
At this time, there appears to be no movement regarding the Section 106 federal review process. The last meeting hosted by the National Park Service was held on September 17, 2018 meeting.
On May 14, 2018, the nonprofit Protect Our Parks, Inc. filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court. In the complaint, they accuse the organizers for the Obama Presidential Center of pulling an “institutional bait and switch” by shifting away from an “official presidential library” overseen and paid for by the U.S. federal government and the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA).
“Although that original purpose of an official Presidential Library no longer exists,” reads the complaint, “the defendants continue to forge ahead to advance a totally different private nongovernmental project on public parkland.” Furthermore, the suit claims that the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago don’t have the authority to transfer public parkland, that public land is “prohibited by law” from being turned over to a private entity for private use, and that such a deal violates Chicago Park District code.
The City of Chicago and Chicago Park District have been working to have the federal lawsuit dismissed at the next hearing on February 14, 2019. Their efforts have included the filing of three amicus briefs in support of the planned OPC. To counter a variety of creative but unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims, three “friend of the courts” amicus briefs were submitted by Preservation Chicago with Jackson Park Watch, The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), and Richard Epstein, a professor at University of Chicago Law School and a leading expert on public trust doctrine. The following amicus briefs summaries are from The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s website.
“One claim consistently made in support of confiscating public parkland for the OPC has been that there is a tradition of siting museums in the city’s parks. On November 28, 2018, eleven museums in Chicago filed an amici curiae brief arguing in favor of this ersatz museological manifest destiny. Two local advocacy groups, Preservation Chicago and Jackson Park Watch, filed an amici brief that systematically dismantled the museums’ assertion. Not one of the eleven museums—as the two groups carefully documented—was built anew on existing parkland. “The proposition that the circumstances of these museums and the OPC are similarly situated is simply untrue,” said Ward Miller, Preservation Chicago Executive Director. “Allowing construction of the OPC in Jackson Park would be a unique event that would set an ominous precedent for the preservation of Chicago’s public parks.” (The Cultural Landscape Foundation, 1/17/19)
“TCLF’s amicus curiae brief addressed several issues, including Olmsted’s design intent. TCLF cited Frederick Law Olmsted’s 1894 correspondence stating that the Museum of Science and Industry, which was already extant within the park, was to be the only “dominating object of interest” in the park and that “all other buildings and structures to be within the park boundaries are to be placed and planned exclusively with a view to advancing the ruling purpose of the park [and] they are to be auxiliary to and subordinate to the scenery of the park.” TCLF also cited the City of Chicago’s own 1999 South Lakefront Framework Plan that concluded “the original Olmsted design has served [Jackson] park well over time and should not be compromised by future plans.” Moreover, an official 2012 correspondence from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the body charged with protecting the State of Illinois’ cultural resources, declared that the park’s design “must be respected.” (The Cultural Landscape Foundation, 1/17/19)
“A brief submitted by Professor Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago Law School and the New York University Law School addressed the degree to which the OPC is subject to judicial review. As noted in a January 15, 2019, press release about all three of the filings, OPC proponents claim that “Under settled public trust law, the agreement between the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District to transfer 19.3 acres of parkland in historic Jackson Park to the non-profit entity the Obama Foundation to construct and operate a presidential center for a sum of $1 for 99 years is entirely appropriate and essentially not entitled to any judicial review.” Professor Epstein “argues that, to the contrary, the proposed transfer of property that comprises the OPC not only represents bad public policy, but also is in clear violation of the public trust doctrine.” Moreover, the “public trust doctrine impose[s] a far more exacting standard on the City given the inherent conflict of interests that arises from the close and enduring connections that the 44th President has with key officials in the City. That standard requires that one look behind unsupported statements of benefits claimed to result from the OPC. Instead, one must also look at the massive dislocations and high costs of putting the project in the proposed location in Jackson Park. Applying the proper standard, the OPC as currently proposed fails the public trust test.” (The Cultural Landscape Foundation, 1/17/19)
Preservationists Continue Fight With City Over Obama Presidential Library “New Yorkers wouldn’t allow this to happen to Central Park. We shouldn’t allow it to happen here,” one Jackson Park Watch leader said. Jamie Nesbitt Golden, Block Club Chicago, 1/18/19