Obama Presidential Center faces new lawsuit the same day as pre-construction work in Jackson Park begins

Alice Yin, Chicago Tribune
·6 min read

A staunch foe of the Obama Presidential Center’s expected arrival in storied Jackson Park is once again suing to block its construction, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday that argues federal authorities should have relocated the official campus in order to protect the surrounding environment.

The complaint from the nonprofit Protect Our Parks and other plaintiffs names the city of Chicago, the Obama Foundation, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland as defendants. It was filed the same day that preliminary construction for the Obama Presidential Center at Jackson Park began, kicking off a process that will cost more than $200 million and take up to several months before the groundbreaking in Jackson Park later this year.

But Herb Caplan, president and founder of Protect Our Parks, said he will fight until the prospect of shovels hitting the ground in Jackson Park is doomed.

“The new lawsuit in effect starts a whole new calendar of litigation,” Caplan said in a phone interview.

In an emailed statement, an Obama Foundation representative defended the planned presidential center as a “world-class institution” on the South Side that has engaged “thousands” of Chicagoans.

“The foundation is prepared to vigorously defend against this lawsuit, and we continue to look ahead to a groundbreaking in the fall of this year,” the statement read. “Several months ago, we celebrated the conclusion of the federal reviews, a robust and transparent process that extended more than three years and involved extensive consulting party and community input.”

Regarding that expectation of groundbreaking this fall, Caplan added, “I think they’re very afraid that we’re going to succeed, and so they’re trying to in effect speed things up in some way to, in effect, make construction in Jackson Park irreversible.”

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A U.S. Department of the Interior spokesman declined to comment. A city spokeswoman said the Law Department is reviewing the lawsuit and declined further comment.

In 2016, Obama announced that Jackson Park, sandwiched between Lake Michigan and Woodlawn, would be the destination of his future presidential center, at the time scheduled to open in 2021. His choice was heralded by supporters who hoped the project would help revitalize neighboring communities and become a source of pride for South Side residents and visitors alike — and condemned by preservationists who did not want to see the sprawling campus take over the park designed in 1871 by Frederick Law Olmsted.

The groundbreaking of the $500 million campus will include a museum, Obama Foundation offices, a public library branch, an athletic center and an outdoor recreation space. Its opening initially had been set for this year, but almost five years of obstacles have stood in the project’s way.

The roadblocks began with the Obamas’ decision to build the center in Jackson Park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That location, as well as the need to close and expand major adjacent streets, prompted a federal review in 2017 to evaluate the project’s effects on the historic properties. The review is known as “Section 106” and required under the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act.

Two other federal processes, a National Environmental Policy Act review on the environmental impact and a “Section 4(f)” one on the project’s effects on protected parkland, also commenced. That NEPA review officially wrapped up in February, following the conclusion of the Section 106 and 4(f) reviews.

The crux of Wednesday’s complaint is that under regulatory statutes, federal agencies should have considered relocating the proposed Obama center site entirely to avoid damage to the environment, according to Caplan and a copy of the lawsuit. The city and Obama Foundation officials have said federal agencies closed the final review into the project because they determined the Obama center’s construction and nearby roadway fixes would not pose a “significant impact” on the environment — a finding that the lawsuit says is “faulty.”

“Contrary to both the letter and spirit of these statutes, all the federal agencies and other Defendants have largely ignored the detailed regulatory framework set out in the various statutes, while also ignoring the City’s public trust obligations,” the lawsuit says.

The first legal challenge from Protect Our Parks started in 2018 when the nonprofit sued the city of Chicago to halt the project, alleging that officials did not have the authority to transfer public parkland to a private nongovernmental entity such as the Obama Foundation.

A federal appeals court ruled in August that the plaintiffs did not suffer actual harm and many of their grievances were not within the court’s jurisdiction. Still, Caplan has petitioned for his lawsuit to be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, during a news conference outside the Museum of Science and Industry, Mayor Lori Lightfoot touted the start of preliminary roadwork as a boon for the South Side.

“There has truly never been a better time to invest in our South Side,” Lightfoot said Wednesday. “When President Obama made this incredibly important commitment to Chicago and the South Side, as a city, we had an obligation to take advantage of this historic opportunity that the OPC represents.”

During a video message posted Wednesday, Obama reiterated confidence in the location of his presidential center at the South Side park.

“We were welcomed to build this presidential center in other places, including other parts of Chicago, but Jackson Park, where this is going to be located, is in the South Side of Chicago,” Obama said. “I think it’s going to be a terrific focal point from which we can excite people’s imaginations and engage young people.”

The Obama Foundation’s board chair, Martin Nesbitt, added at the Wednesday news conference that the former president and first lady Michelle Obama will attend the groundbreaking this year as an effort to make their presence in the surrounding communities “well into the future.”

The Obama Foundation estimates construction will take about four years. The initial work will entail relocating utility lines before ultimately closing streets such as Cornell Drive between North Midway Plaisance and Hayes Drive and northbound between East 68th Street to where the drive becomes a two-way street. Other improvements on Lake Shore Drive and arterial streets, such as added lanes, also will take place.

Those projects will mostly be funded through a $174 million infusion from the state, with the city hoping for more federal help to fill in much of the remaining $200 million, Lightfoot said. Also in the works is a redesign of Midway Plaisance, a new track and field facility, a new running track with AstroTurf and more sports lighting.

“There’s also moneys coming into this from the city, and we’re hoping, frankly, that we’ll get some additional support from the federal government as well,” Lightfoot said.

In addition, the city has agreed to multiple affordable housing measures under its Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance after years of community organizing from activists with the Obama Community Benefits Agreement coalition and 20th Ward Ald. Jeanette Taylor. That deal capped a contentious debate between the mayor and community critics who long insisted the presidential center would displace longtime and lower income residents without protective provisions in place, but community advocates continue to fight for stricter measures.

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