Activists filed a federal lawsuit Monday to block construction of the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s historic public parklands.
Protect Our Parks Inc. accused organizers of an “institutional bait and switch” by initially advertising the center as the 44th president’s official library.
“In August 2016, the City and the Park District publically announced that the Obama Presidential Library, promised to include all of the former President’s official records, would be built in Jackson Park,” the lawsuit reads. “Then, in May 2017, after the Defendants’ public announcement that a true ‘Presidential Library’ would be built, the Obamas did an about face on their commitment to a Presidential Library.”
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, also claims the transfer of public parklands to a private entity violates Park District Code.
“Defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way, known as a short con shell game, a corrupt scheme to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab, one that will endure for centuries to come, regardless of future changing public park needs and increasingly consequential environmental conditions,” the lawsuit reads.
The city said the lawsuit will hinder economic development on the South Side. The Obama Foundation estimates the center will have an economic impact of $2.1 billion over 10 years.
“The Obama Presidential Center is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest hundreds of millions of dollars that will create good jobs on the South Side, bring our communities together and honor the legacy of Chicago’s favorite son and daughter,” the city said in a statement, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. “While some choose to stand in the way of progress for the South Side, we are focused on making progress in every community in Chicago.”
The lawsuit comes days before the Chicago Plan Commission meets to consider the project submitted by the Obama Foundation, the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Department of Transportation. Boundaries approved by the City Council in 2015 have changed and need to be approved by the commission.
Community organizers, academics and environmentalists have for years opposed the plan to build the center on Chicago’s historic public parklands.
Local activists have been lobbying the Obama Foundation to sign a community benefits agreement to guarantee jobs, benefits and controls on housing costs for residents of the South Side.
Preservationists point out that Jackson Park was originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the landscape architects behind New York City’s famed Central Park, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Current plans call for the Obama Presidential Center to take nearly 20 acres from Jackson Park.
Taxpayers are also on the hook for an estimated $175 million in renovations to the surrounding area, including the closure of parts of Cornell Drive, a major South Side artery.
An independent report conducted by RaSmith, a Wisconsin-based engineering firm, found that there is “no need” to close Cornell Drive in order to build the Obama Presidential Center.
“In effect, taxpayers are being asked to spend a significant amount of scarce tax dollars on an unnecessary project,” concluded the report, which was paid for by the Jackson Park Watch, a park advocacy group.
Scholars have also questioned why the center will not be President Obama’s official presidential library and will not house any documents from the Obama White House.
More than 200 faculty members at the University of Chicago signed a public letter in January denouncing plans for the library as “socially regressive.”
“We are concerned that these are not the best ways to use public funds to invest in the future of Chicago,” the letter reads.
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