A photo of a design maquette for the Obama Presidential Center planned for Jackson Park and designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates.
A design maquette for the Obama Presidential Center planned for Jackson Park and designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Obama Foundation

A judge has ruled that a lawsuit brought by Chicago preservationists can proceed, dealing a blow to Barack Obama's plans to build his library in Jackson Park.

Last May, a group of Chicago-area preservationists sued the City of Chicago and its parks division over plans for the Obama Presidential Center, which is due to open on the city’s South Side in 2021. The charges: Working with the Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago, the city planned to carve out 20 acres of Jackson Park to build the former president’s library, violating the public trust doctrine—a thorny legal land-use principle tied to Chicago history.

On Tuesday, a federal judge bit on this process claim. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois ruled that a lawsuit can proceed over the decision to build the center in Jackson Park, dealing former President Barack Obama and the city a setback. The city had asked the judge to throw out the case.

The decision is a narrow victory for Protect Our Parks, the preservation group that, along with three individual plaintiffs, brought the suit against the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District. But the case is not clear cut. The final verdict for the Obama Presidential Center will depend on a reading of the public trust doctrine, which is rooted in a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1892 about public and private rights to Chicago’s lakefront.

Moreover, the current case comes at a time when residents are rethinking what kinds of promises cities should make for development. From Amazon’s hasty departure from Queens to the backlash over Google’s waterfront scheme for Toronto, people are elbowing their way into the promises that leaders and developers strike behind closed doors.

In the Obama center case, foes of the $500 million plan have centered their objections around the site location—a perch in an historic park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1871. Almost no one objects to the Obama Presidential Center coming to Chicago’s South Side, but some feel that it hoovers up an existing community asset instead of creating a new one. The question has lingered over the project since its introduction near the end of the president’s tenure in 2015.

“That lakefront land is priceless and irreplaceable,” says Herbert Caplan, the president of Protect Our Parks, plaintiff in the case, speaking of Jackson Park. “It enjoys a national and international reputation as a twin of sorts to Central Park in New York.”

The site for the Obama Presidential Center (Tom Rossiter/The University of Chicago)

They are indeed twins: Olmsted and Vaux designed both Jackson Park and Central Park. The former was dedicated to Chicago following the World’s Columbian Exposition (better known as Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893. The park was established after a years-long struggle over Chicago’s lakefront, which culminated in Illinois Central Railroad Co. v. Illinois, a case heard by the Supreme Court in 1892. Chicago is the birthplace of the modern public trust doctrine, an argument rooted in Roman civil law that places public land-use rights above private claims. Public trust doctrine governs everything from beach access to wildlife conservation today. Protect Our Parks sued in part on the grounds that the construction of the Obama Presidential Center would violate the public’s claim to Jackson Park.

On Tuesday, Judge John Robert Blakey agreed that the group had standing on this point. “[Plaintiffs alleging that ‘lands held in the public trust are imminently in danger of being altered by the actions of defendants’ have identified a ‘concrete injury’ that can be ‘redressed by a favorable court decision,’” reads the decision.

Earlier plans by Star Wars auteur George Lucas to build a museum on 17 acres of lakefront land south of Soldier Field ran into a similar wall. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered the land—parking lots owned by the Chicago Park District and sacred tailgating grounds for Bears fans—to the filmmaker for a buck. But the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art sputtered after another group, Friends of the Parks, brought a challenge in 2015 on the grounds that the lakefront museum would violate the public trust doctrine. Lucas moved on before the court rendered any decision.

Like the plan for the Lucas museum, Chicago’s winning bid to host the Obama center involves surrendering land owned by the Chicago Park District for a nominal lease. That may have caught the eye of the Obama Foundation, which hosted an HQ2-like contest that drew proposals from Harlem and Honolulu. The University of Chicago was so eager to host the library it even acquired the rights to Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” as a lure.

Proponents of competitive private deals for public land, including Mayor Emanuel, argue that the public trust doctrine is preventing the city from finding more economically productive uses for land. That’s an argument dating back decades.

“For environmentalists and preservationists who view private ownership as a source of the degradation of our natural and historical resources, the public trust doctrine holds out the hope of salvation through what amounts to a judicially enforced inalienability rule that locks resources into public ownership,” reads a pointed article on the topic in The University of Chicago Law Review. “For those who view private property as the bulwark of the free enterprise system and constitutional liberty, the doctrine looms as a vague threat.”

Blakey didn’t rule on the merit of the public trust argument this time. He struck down several other notions down, though. The judge ruled that the plaintiffs’ claim that taxpayer funds would subsidize political speech at the Obama Presidential Center relied on “multiple levels of wild factual speculation.” He dismissed the other plaintiffs’ standing and rejected their claim to any “aesthetic and environmental harm” from the center’s construction. And he set an aggressive timeline for resolving the dispute.

While virtually all of Chicago is in agreement that the Obama Presidential Center should be built somewhere on the South Side, there’s ongoing resistance to both the Jackson Park site and the Obama Foundation’s unwillingness to enter into a community benefits agreement that would boost the economic interests of nearby South Side neighborhoods. As Zach Mortice recently reported for CityLab, local advocates such as Ja’Mal Green hope that the impending exit of Mayor Rahm Emanuel will improve the odds that the center will sign such an agreement.

But outside the South Side, there is broad support for some version of the current plan as it stands. Thirteen other presidential libraries as well as 11 museums that operate in Chicago parks, from the Adler Planetarium to the Art Institute of Chicago, filed amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the defendants. (As staff from The Cultural Landscape Foundation noted in January, none of the 11 museums was built on existing parkland.)

“We are confident that our plan for the Obama Presidential Center is consistent with Chicago’s rich tradition of locating world-class museums in its parks, and we look forward to developing a lasting cultural institution on the South Side,” said a spokesperson for the Obama Foundation.

A map for the planned Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. (Obama Foundation)

Several details in the arrangement that brought the Obama Presidential Center to Chicago, however, remain shrouded in municipal murk. The parties briefly considered Washington Park, another historic South Side site, in an alternative scheme that would have also carved out land from the park, even though the University of Chicago owns 11 acres in adjacent property. The understanding between the University of Chicago and the Obama Foundation that led Emanuel and the Chicago Park District to offer up 20 acres in Jackson Park instead—at no cost—is not public.

Advocates hoping to strike a community benefits agreement, or working to understand why a $500 million development must be built in a public park, hope that these details will emerge in discovery (a concern that Blakey addressed in his decision). The parties have been tight-lipped so far, and Obama himself has brushed off worries that the Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects–designed project could spur gentrification or displacement.

“If the Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago succeed in taking some 20 acres of National Register-listed Jackson Park for the [Obama Presidential Center], what’s to stop other powerful and well-connected interests from citing this precedent as justification for expropriating parkland elsewhere in Chicago and around the country?” said Charles Birnbaum, president and CEO for the Cultural Landscape Foundation, in an interview with WTTW in Chicago.

The court battle over the Obama Presidential Center is a variation on a theme playing out around the country (and beyond). Economic development decisions, inclusive planning, and transparency are bullet points in land-use battles in New York, where Amazon just walked away from plans to build another headquarters, and Toronto, where Google’s Sidewalk Labs is shaping a waterfront development. In Washington, D.C., renovation work continues at the downtown former Carnegie Library building that the city gave to Apple on the pretense that its stores are actually cultural centers.

Beloved by liberals for his message of hope and change, Obama might seem an unlikely figure to join a lineup with oft-criticized corporate behemoths like Google, Apple, and Amazon. But the charges South Siders are aiming at the Obama center—that the project involves secretive tactics, public giveaways, and a refusal to negotiate with representatives of local communities—may sound familiar to activists who have battled those companies’ development schemes. The court will consider the argument that parks are off the table when the city is plating perks to land a mega-developer. In this case, the former president.

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