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Judge rules that lawsuit against the Obama Presidential Center can proceed

The revised design for the Obama Presidential Center's museum tower (Courtesy Obama Foundation)

U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey has ruled that a lawsuit against Chicago’s proposed Obama Presidential Center (OPC) can proceed, potentially delaying construction by months or even years.

The OPC campus is looking to carve out 19.3 acres from the historic Olmsted and Vaux–designed Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side. Despite being approved by the Chicago City Council in May of last year, the $500 million project has been held up by a still-pending federal review process and work stoppages at adjacent sites in the park.

Construction on the Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and Interactive Design–planned campus was expected to begin sometime this year, but it seems that community concerns may shake up that timeline. A lawsuit filed against Chicago and the Chicago Park District by the environmental group Protect Our Parks and three others argues that the Obama Foundation’s intrusion into the park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is illegal. That’s in part because the Center won’t actually be a presidential library.

Instead, the campus will contain a squat, stone-clad museum tower, training center, parking garage, and community hub, as well as a 5,000-square-foot Chicago Public Library offshoot, with President Obama’s archives stored offsite and digitized. That distinction is important, as the OPC will be a privately-run institution instead of a government project and Protect Our Parks has argued that this should invalidate the land transfer from the city to the Obama Foundation. The group isn’t against the construction of the center but would prefer that it be moved somewhere else on the South Side if possible.



The spat is reminiscent of George Lucas’s battle with the public space advocacy group Friends of the Parks in 2016. After a similar lawsuit over the Museum of Narrative Arts and its place on the Lake Michigan waterfront was allowed to proceed, Lucas instead canceled development and shipped the spaceship-like museum out to Los Angeles. Supporters of the OPC have expressed fear that the Obama Foundation may change its plans and leave Chicago if the project is allowed to languish.

“The Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago created this controversy by insisting on the confiscation of public parkland,” said president and CEO of the Cultural Landscape Foundation Charles A. Birnbaum in a statement. “The Obama Foundation could make this issue go away by using vacant and/or city-owned land on the South Side for the Obama Presidential Center (which is planned to be a private facility rather than a presidential library administered by the National Archives), or, better still, land owned by the University of Chicago, which submitted the winning bid to host the Center.”

The OPC was originally expected to open in 2021, but it remains to be seen whether the project will go ahead as planned. Although Protect Our Parks was victorious, Judge Blakey’s ruling only affirms the group’s right to sue, not that their argument is correct.

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