Legal fight over building Obama Center in Jackson Park heats up

by Kim Boateng Posted on January 16th, 2019

Washington: The battle over locating the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park heated up on Tuesday as opponents argued in federal court briefs that City Hall rigged the deal for what would be the first-ever complex of its kind allowed in a public park in Chicago.

A “friend of the court” brief by Preservation Chicago and Jackson Park Watch — which has taken a lead on watchdogging the development — provided the most detailed research yet to demonstrate that the 11 museums in Chicago on park land were not originally carved out of existing parks.

That’s an important point because defenders of the project downplay the fact that the Obama complex will be carved out of 19.3 acres in historic Jackson Park by noting other museums are on parkland — at present.

“Contrary to the express and/or implied arguments, the settings and context for the eleven Museums in the Park were all very different from that being proposed for the OPC.  The Museums in the Park utilized reclaimed historic buildings, or were constructed on sites of previously existing buildings that became available, or were constructed on former railyards or empty non-parkland.”

Those “friend of the court” filings come as the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District, defending the development, are asking a federal judge to dismiss the case. The next hearing on Feb. 14.

The Chicago Sun-Times has learned that the Obama Foundation, not a direct party in the lawsuit, reached out to the 13 other presidential foundations to file a friend of the court brief. The brief addressed a specific City Hall concern: whether it matters that the Obama Center will not house the official Obama Presidential Library.

Courtney Williams, the new Obama Foundation Communications Manager, said in an email, “We brought the case and some of the issues to the attention of the presidential center association and asked if they were interested in submitting some information to the court in the form of an amicus brief. They said they were and took it from there. We’re glad they submitted their brief because it’s very helpful information for the court from the group that knows presidential centers best.”

City Hall and the Chicago Park District have signed up legal firepower in the case, filed last year. Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella represent the Park District; City Hall added Mayer Brown LLP to supplement its in-house law department.

Both sides now each have friend of the court briefs in front of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Blakey.

That the system was rigged in favor of the Obama Foundation from the start is an argument advanced in a “friend of the court” brief for the opposition authored by law professor Richard Epstein, who has academic homes at the University of Chicago and New York University. Epstein, who is associated with the conservative Federalist Society and Hoover Institution, wrote that the outcome was pre-ordained in part because Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, was determined to carry out Obama’s demand for his presidential center to be located in Jackson Park.

That created a situation “rife with conflicts of interest,” Epstein wrote, creating a more urgent legal need for the case to be allowed to survive and advance.

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Kim Boateng

Kim Boateng

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