It was Halloween when the Chicago City Council gave final approval to the deal that will allow the Obama Presidential Center to be built in Jackson Park, and it’ll be Valentine’s Day when a federal district court judge hears oral arguments on a lawsuit trying to bring that deal to a halt.
The city and the Chicago Park District have asked Judge John Robert Blakey to throw out a lawsuit filed against them that objects to the use of Jackson Park for the center. Protect Our Parks (POP), the group that brought the suit, has responded, and a flurry of legal briefs on behalf of outside parties has been filed in support of each side.
POP argues that it’s illegal for the Park District to transfer nearly 20 acres of the historic park to the city in order for the city to, in effect, flip that land to the Obama Foundation, which will make a token onetime payment of $10 for its use for 99 years.
Since the Obama Center’s breaking with tradition by not serving as the repository for the actual presidential papers (they’ll be kept elsewhere by the National Archives), and therefore won’t be a government facility, POP claims that this deal is a transfer of protected public land to a private party without appropriate compensation. POP also objects to the use of this public asset for what it assumes will be partisan purposes.
POP suggests that other south-side locations would be less disruptive and costly (taxpayers will be on the hook for road reroutes and other infrastructure expenses that the city has estimated at $175 million), and would bring greater benefit to local residents and businesses.
The city, on the other hand, says it’ll retain ownership of the land and the three-building center, and that the Obama Foundation will merely be developing and operating it. The city also maintains that the center will bring benefits to Chicago citizens that will compensate for the loss of parkland and any taxpayer expense.
Supporting briefs include one by a group of property law professors (from Northwestern, the University of Chicago, Notre Dame, Columbia University, and Chicago-Kent) arguing that the city’s deal is “consistent with public trust doctrine,” and another by New York University and U. of C. law professor (and fellow at the conservative Hoover Foundation) Richard A. Epstein, who says it’s not. Noting that Mayor Rahm Emanuel was President Obama’s chief of staff, Epstein argues that “the transaction at issue is a classic circumstance of an insider favoritism.”
Briefs supporting the city have also been filed by the foundations that operate the 13 existing presidential libraries, and by Chicago’s group of 11 Museums in the Park; both argue that the Obama Center’s purpose and situation is similar to their own. The Museums in the Park warn that the POP suit, if successful, could endanger them all.
A counterargument in a brief filed by Jackson Park Watch and Preservation Chicago claims that any suggestion that parkland was given up for those museums is fake history: what actually happened was that the museums went into existing buildings, were built on the sites of prior buildings, or preceded the parks that grew around them.
According to the Jackson Park Watch and Preservation Chicago brief, four of the 11 members of Museums in the Park took over existing buildings (the Museum of Science and Industry, the DuSable Museum, and the National Museums of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture and Mexican Art); three were built on the site of prior buildings (the Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum); and four were built outside of existing parkland (the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium, and Chicago History Museum).
“In all those situations,” Preservation Chicago executive director Ward Miller told me, “we didn’t give up precious parklands. We just feel there could be a better solution [for the Obama Center].”
A brief filed by the Cultural Landscape Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., notes that Jackson Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted wrote in 1894 that “the Museum of Science and Industry was to be the only ‘dominating object of interest’ in the park,” and warns of setting a dangerous land-grab precedent.
Maybe Judge Blakey will be won over by that argument, or by those that say the deal needs more scrutiny. Or maybe he’ll be thinking this can’t set a precedent for taking other parkland, since there will be no more first black presidents of the United States. Maybe he’ll remember that Jackson Park suffered an arguably worse blow when its scenic drive was turned into a six-lane speedway in the 1960s. And maybe he’ll figure that if the Obama Presidential Center’s 235-foot tower turns out to be a visually disruptive presence on a historic landscape, the symbolism will be right on.
Stay tuned. v