Chicago parks advocacy group wins Obama presidential library lawsuit

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CHICAGO (AP) – A judge on Tuesday gave the green light to a lawsuit filed by a parks advocacy group that aims to permanently stop the delayed construction of former President Barack Obama’s $ 500 million presidential center in a Chicago park on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Some supporters of the project fear that the lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks will force Obama – who launched his political career in Chicago – to build the Obama Presidential Center elsewhere. A 2016 lawsuit by another group helped defeat a $ 400 million plan by “Star Wars” creator George Lucas to build a museum on public land on Chicago’s lakefront. This museum is currently under construction in Los Angeles.

U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey heard arguments last week on the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and largely focused on whether the group had standing. His decision does not mean that the group will necessarily win, but does confirm that the lawsuit poses a formidable threat to the project.

Plans call for the center to be built at Jackson Park, which was named after President Andrew Jackson and was a site for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The site seven miles south of downtown Chicago is near the low-income neighborhoods where Obama once worked as a community organizer and is a few blocks from the University of Chicago, where Obama was a law professor. It is also close to the home where the Obamas lived until he won the presidency in 2008.

The center was originally slated to open in 2021, although the pitch is yet to be broken due to the ongoing litigation.

In its 2018 trial, Protect Our Parks accused the city of illegally transferring park lands to a private entity, the Obama Foundation. The group said city officials manipulated the approval process and changed the legislation to circumvent long-standing laws designed to ensure residents unimpeded access to lakeside parks.

“The defendants have chosen to treat this in a classic Chicago political way … to deceive and apparently legitimize an illegal land grab,” the lawsuit said. He also described the city as a “gift” of prized land to a favorite Chicago son.

To make the park available for the project, the Chicago Park District first sold the land to the city for $ 1. Illinois lawmakers have amended the state’s Illinois Aquarium and Museum Act to include presidential libraries as an exception to the non-development rules if there is a compelling public interest. Chicago City Council approved the project by a 47-1 vote last May.

The Obama Foundation, a private, non-profit organization, would pay the city $ 10 for the use of park land for 99 years, cover the costs of building the complex, and be responsible for operating costs for 99 years. Once built, the physical structures of the Obama Presidential Center would be transferred to the city for free, meaning the city would officially own the center but not control what happens there.

“They basically give [property] to Obama… for 10 cents a year for 99 years, ”parks attorney Mark Roth said Thursday.

Lawyers for the city said Thursday the city will also pay around $ 175 million to reconfigure roads to handle traffic around the center.

In a friend of the court brief, lawyer Richard Epstein said that the doctrine of public trust places an additional burden on authorities to prove an overwhelming public benefit when they offer the use of public parks to prominent figures as well. connected than Obama, who remains extremely popular in the heavily Democratic city. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel previously served as Obama’s chief of staff in the White House.

Among other claims in the lawsuit, the center would interfere with the migration of butterflies and birds.

Lawyers for the city said Protect Our Parks misinterpreted the law, distorted the flow of the approval process and overstated potential environmental disruption.

The center would include 20 acres of the 500-acre park. Its central building would be a 225-foot museum tower, surrounded by a cluster of lower buildings, including a 300-seat auditorium. The centre’s website says the complex would be “a world-class museum and public gathering space that celebrates the first African-American president and the first lady of our country.” [Michelle Obama]. “

Lawyers for the city said the center would bring significant benefits, including providing a major economic boost to poor local minority communities. Donors estimate that it will create 5,000 jobs during construction and more than 2,500 permanent jobs. It is estimated that 760,000 people could visit each year.

Obama chose Chicago over other vying places to host his presidential center, including Hawaii, where he was born.

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