CHICAGO (CN) — The Seventh Circuit was skeptical Thursday of a parks advocacy organization’s arguments opposing the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park, in a case that has left many supporters of the former president bewildered and angry.
If the Clinton Foundation had approached New York City and asked for 20 acres of Central Park for its Harlem headquarters, it would have been laughed out of court.
But that is essentially what the Obama Foundation asked of Chicago — and got, in a sweetheart deal inked under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who previously served as Obama’s chief of staff. The deal gives the foundation the right to use 20 acres of lakefront public land in Jackson Park for 99 years for $10.
A lawsuit challenging this transfer under the public trust doctrine has garnered the attention of local and national preservation organizations.
“It’s wrenching,” Preservation Chicago’s CEO Ward Miller told Courthouse News. “We welcome the center with open arms, but this is a terrible site. It’s being shoehorned in. So many laws are being ill-used, and even gutted to make this happen.”
Charles Birnbaum, CEO and founder of the Washington, D.C.-based the Cultural Landscape Foundation, echoed these sentiments.
“When you have a beloved figure like President Obama basically getting the Good Housekeeping seal of approval to the confiscation of public parkland, it sends a message to other municipalities. Which is, if you have a powerful and well-connected board of directors, you too can confiscate parkland held in trust,” Birnbaum told Courthouse News.
Jackson Park was designed by Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the designers of New York’s Central Park, and is famous as the site of the 1893 World’s Fair. It is located on the city’s southside, just east of the University of Chicago, where Obama taught as a law professor.
Initially, the Obama Foundation intended to build a traditional presidential library operated by the National Archive and Records Administration on the site. But then, the Obamas announced a change in plans. Instead of housing the official presidential records under supervision of the National Archives, the newly renamed Obama Presidential Center will be a “privately owned, managed and operated” campus featuring a museum, public meeting spaces, a recording studio and an athletic center.
The $500 million privately funded campus will eat up 3.5% of the park’s acreage, but since about half of the park is a lagoon, it will take up far more of the park’s solid ground. It will also require rerouting and expanding major city streets, which will almost double its footprint on the area. Attendees will be required to buy admission tickets and pay parking fees.
Two years ago, the environmental nonprofit Protect Our Parks and three city residents sued the Chicago Park District and the city of Chicago over the proposal, arguing that the project represents “a short con shell game, a corrupt scheme to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab.”
This was not the intended use of Jackson Park, Protect Our Parks claims, which was explicitly dedicated to the people of the State of Illinois “as a public park…free to all persons forever,” according to the complaint.
While there are many other museums along Chicago’s lakefront and in public parks, all of them were built on the site of prior buildings, or on land reclaimed from the lake, according to Preservation Chicago. None of them took away the city’s precious green space, whereas “the Obama Foundation’s current plan for the presidential center will require cutting 200-400 old-growth trees,” Miller said.
But U.S. District Judge John Blakey, an Obama appointee, was unconvinced by Protect Our Park’s arguments and dismissed its attempt to block construction last year.