THREATENED: OPC Lawsuit Challenges Precedent Set by Transferring Public Parkland for Private Use

Obama Presidential Center site prior to construction when this site was still 20-acres of public parkland in Chicago’s historic Jackson Park. Photo credit: Tom Rossiter / University of Illinois Chicago

“As the Obama Presidential Center’s main building rises higher above Jackson Park, the project’s main opponents on Tuesday made what could be one of their last significant legal efforts to halt construction of the historic project.

“Following a series of losses in other legal venues that have enabled construction of the center to continue, attorneys representing the advocacy group Protect Our Parks argued before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that using public land for the presidential center remained riddled with problems.

“The group is hoping the appellate court will halt or even potentially reverse construction of the museum for the former president. But a written ruling after Tuesday’s arguments could be months away and in the meantime construction continues on the center that Obama Foundation officials have said should open roughly two years from now at a cost of at least $800 million.

“Judges Diane Wood, David Hamilton, and Ilana Rovner lobbed frequent questions at Protect Our Parks’ lead attorney, noted University of Chicago emeritus professor Richard Epstein, as well as attorneys for the defendants, the city of Chicago, the Obama Foundation and the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Protect Our Parks, or POP, has long contended it doesn’t oppose a South Side location for Obama’s presidential center, going as far as drafting an alternate proposal at a privately owned location just west of the current site, near Washington Park. Its most recent appeal POP said the ongoing Jackson Park project is putting the city’s parkland in ‘grave danger’ by endangering mature trees, disrupting annual bird migratory flights and closing four main South Side thoroughfares.

“The appeal further argues the foundation’s takeover of 19 acres of parkland ‘was in violation of the public trust doctrine’ and that the 99-year agreement in which the city and the Chicago Park District leased the land to the Obama Foundation for only $10 was a ‘giveaway,’ compared to the ‘priceless historical’ parkland designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

“Epstein argued taxpayers who are the beneficiaries of public property have standing to enforce the public trust, and that the foundation had not lived up to the financial terms of the agreement that required it to raise enough money to build the museum and establish an endowment before the Obama Foundation took control of the site in 2021.

‘But Protect Our Parks’ appeal noted that number was not audited and that the cost to build the center had grown to $700 million later that year, and hundreds of millions of dollars more were needed in an endowment to cover operations, maintenance and improvements to the site. Epstein argued taxpayers might end up footing the bill, and without advocacy from taxpayers, ‘otherwise what happens is you’ll never pick up the clam and look to see what’s underneath it. And in fact, what’s underneath this is a massive irregularity,’ he said Tuesday.

“‘This is just a travesty,’ Epstein said after oral arguments about the deal with the Obama Foundation. ‘I’m an academic. I don’t like seeing judicial decisions that come out which I think are indefensible. … I’ve been in Chicago all my life. I just regard this as the worst form of political connivance I’ve seen. … I’m essentially a good government guy, and this was bad government.’ (Quig, Chicago Tribune, 10/24/23)

Preservation Chicago has continued to work closely with Protect Our Parks and we attended the hearing. We recognize that the historic fabric of the Jackson Park impacted by the Obama Presidential Center has already been lost due to ongoing construction work. However, its important that the legal framework which allowed the transfer of 20 acres of public parkland to a private entity be clarified in anticipation of future threats to privatize public parkland.

Read the full story at Chicago Tribune

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