Federal lawsuit filed to halt progress on Obama Presidential Center

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A Chicago nonprofit organization filed a federal lawsuit on Monday in an attempt to block the Obama Presidential Center from being constructed in Jackson Park. The lawsuit accuses organizers of committing an “institutional bait and switch” by shifting the purpose of the center away from being a true presidential library.

Filed by Protect Our Parks Inc., the lawsuit contends that the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago lack the authority to transfer public parkland to a nongovernmental entity such as the Obama Foundation.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the property deal was expected to involve the Park District selling the land to the city for a nominal price, with the city subsequently entering into a long-term lease with the Obama Foundation. The lawsuit alleges that such a transaction would violate state law and represents “a short con shell game, a corrupt scheme to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab.”

“The City and Park District clearly realize and fully understand that this established law precludes the Park District from arbitrarily transferring possession, use and control of this dedicated ‘open, clear and free’ public parkland in Jackson Park to a private nongovernmental … entity’s self-determined use,” the complaint read.

The Obamas are accused by the plaintiffs of thoroughly changing the original plans for the Jackson Park site, which was proposed to become home to a national presidential library that would house historic documents and archives from former President Barack Obama’s presidency under the supervision of the National Archives and Records Administration.

On Monday, the city released a statement regarding the lawsuit, depicting it as an attempt to thwart economic progress on Chicago’s South Side.

“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. 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 statement read.

Chicago-based Friends of the Parks has also taken issue with the plans for the Obama Presidential Center, but has chosen not to take action against the center for legal and financial reasons.

In a Monday statement, Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, said, “Friends of the Parks has always said that we welcome the Obama Presidential Center to Chicago’s South Side but disagree with the choice to locate it on public parkland rather than vacant land across the street from Washington Park. While we are not involved with this lawsuit in any way, it is an indication of the fact the Friends of the Parks is not alone in our concern about Chicago’s parks being seen as sites for real estate development.”

The Chicago Plan Commission is scheduled to meet on Thursday to discuss modifications to the boundaries of the Obama Presidential Center, as well as the long-term grounds lease for the Obama Foundation.

The 19-acre center is slated to open in 2021.

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