The Obama Foundation has been planning a massive construction project in Chicago in honor of the 44th president for years. But since an environmental group filed a legal challenge last year, the project's prospects have looked far from certain. On Tuesday, an Illinois district judge allowed a lawsuit aimed at stopping the Obama Presidential Center from going up to move forward, setting the stage for a battle in court.
The Obama Presidential Center is intended to be a library, museum, and gathering space. Exhibitions will educate visitors about the Obama family, including how their story intersects with the history of black Americans, civil rights, Chicago, and the United States as a whole. Although the project was supposed to be finished in 2021, construction hasn't begun yet because a group of activists has taken issue with the spot set aside for the center: Jackson Park, a 500-acre green space that borders Lake Michigan.
Protect Our Parks filed a lawsuit against the project last May. The group argues that the lakefront land should be kept in public hands instead of transferred to The Obama Foundation. According to Politico, the city had to amend an existing law to approve the project, arguing that the educational benefits offered by the center justified bending the usual prohibition against building in the lakeside park.
After the center was approved, the Chicago Park District sold the property to the city for a nominal fee of $1. The Obama Foundation is set to pay the city $10 to use the land for 99 years. The foundation will pay for construction and operating costs during that time, while the city will pay to restructure roads around the center for traffic purposes.
"Illinois had deeded the Jackson Park site to the Park District with the express restriction that the land 'be held, managed and controlled by them and their park, for the recreation, health and benefit of the public, and free to all,'" Protect Our Parks argued in its legal complaint, per the Cook County Record. "Construction of the various proposed buildings in the park destroys the public park's recreational purpose of open space, 'free to all persons forever.'"
The lawsuit also argues that the presence of the center on the lakefront would "destroy the pristine open environment." It notes that transferring the land to private hands would compel the city to keep the property private, "regardless of future changing public park needs and increasingly consequential environmental conditions."
Lawyers for the city argue that Protect Our Parks is wrong to claim that the center could cause significant environmental disruptions, according to Politico. They also assert that the group mischaracterized the approval process, that the project has a firm legal basis, and that the center will provide thousands of temporary and permanent jobs for residents of Chicago's South Side.
Because Chicago moved to dismiss the lawsuit in November, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey's job this week was to decide whether the case had enough merit to move forward. After listening to arguments last week, he ruled on Tuesday that the suit could proceed.
Those who have celebrated the Presidential Center coming to Chicago — the city where President Barack Obama lived before he was elected to the White House — are worried that the lawsuit may force the project to find another home, Politico reports. In 2016, Protect Our Parks successfully sued filmmaker George Lucas to halt his plans to build a museum on the city's lakefront, and Lucas moved the project to Los Angeles.
Protect Our Parks isn't the only group of activists that's fighting to have a say in the center's development, either. The Obama Community Benefits Agreement Coalition is fighting for the creation of a "community benefits agreement" to ensure that the project incorporates community interests, rather than sidestepping them.
However, the Obama Foundation has insisted that Protect Our Parks' lawsuit doesn't hold water. "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," a spokesperson said Tuesday, per The Chicago Tribune. "We look forward to developing a lasting cultural institution on the South Side."