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 April 16, 2024

Appeals Court Sides With Obama In Fight Over Presidential Center Site

Federal courts have cleared the way for the Obama Presidential Center's ongoing construction in Chicago's Jackson Park, rejecting the latest lawsuit from Protect Our Parks.

The Hyde Park Herald reported that in 2018, the nonprofit organization Protect Our Parks initiated legal action to stop the development of the Obama Presidential Center, arguing that Jackson Park was an inappropriate site for such a project.

They claimed the park's usage for the center violated the public trust doctrine and was not compliant with environmental standards.

Their legal battles focused on the transfer of city-owned land to the Obama Foundation, which they argued was improperly handled.

Initial Lawsuit and Court Rulings

The case, officially titled Protect Our Parks v. Buttigieg, was escalated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit after a district court ruled against the plaintiffs in November 2022. This decision supported the city of Chicago and the Obama Foundation, allowing them to proceed with the construction.

The appeals court, comprising Judges Diane Wood, Ilana Rovner, and David Hamilton, upheld the lower court’s ruling this Monday, finding that Protect Our Parks had not presented any new evidence to support their claims against the development.

The appellate court’s decision was clear and succinct, emphasizing that the ongoing construction should not be halted. The judges noted that the plaintiffs were unable to demonstrate entitlement to any form of relief from their claims against the Obama Presidential Center, dismissing the overarching legal challenges presented.

"Construction of the Center is now well underway, and yet the plaintiffs demand that we put a stop to it and, we assume, order the defendants to restore the site,” the ruling elaborated. “But they have failed to show that they are entitled to any relief relating to their overarching claim against the Center, no matter under what theory," the court further clarified.

Response from the Obama Foundation

Following the court's ruling, Valerie Jarret, CEO of the Obama Foundation, expressed satisfaction and reiterated the foundation’s commitment to the South Side of Chicago. “Our focus throughout the legal journey has been to protect the interests of our community and ensure we are able to deliver on the commitment we’ve made to bring our world-class institution to Chicago,” Jarret stated.

She highlighted the expected benefits of the center, “The Center will bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to explore the South Side each year, boosting the local economy, creating new opportunities for young people and delivering new amenities,” she elaborated.

Plans for the Obama Presidential Center

The Obama Presidential Center is planned as a 19-acre campus in Jackson Park, featuring a presidential library tower, a branch of the Chicago Public Library, various outdoor play areas, and a state-of-the-art athletic and conference center. Originally scheduled for completion in 2021, the project has been delayed, with the new timeline setting the opening in 2026.

The center’s design is focused on being more than just a presidential library; it aims to serve as a vibrant community hub. Late 2025 is now the expected completion time for the athletic center and new park spaces around the complex.

Ongoing Legal Challenges and Community Impact

Despite the appellate court’s ruling, Richard Epstein, counsel for Protect Our Parks, indicated that the legal battle might not be over. He plans to seek a re-hearing in the circuit court. Epstein criticized the financial terms of the land transfer, asserting, “If this were private lands, this would be selling for over $10 million an acre in that kind of location,” rather than the nominal amount paid by the foundation.

The continued legal wrangling underscores the complex nature of using public land for private development, especially when it involves significant changes to historically significant public spaces.

Conclusion: Future of the Obama Presidential Center

This recent court ruling marks a significant victory for the Obama Presidential Center, allowing construction to proceed amidst ongoing legal challenges. The project promises to bring substantial economic and social benefits to Chicago's South Side, transforming Jackson Park into a dynamic civic space. Despite ongoing opposition, the center is poised to become a cornerstone of community development and historical reflection.

Written By:
Christina Davie

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