Dubbed an "ugly waste of taxpayer resources" by angry Chicagoans, the presidential center slated for construction in a park beside Lake Michigan may be in jeopardy after Judge John Robert Blakey denied the city's motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Protect Our Parks.
Supporters of the project had hoped the court would grant a city motion to throw out the lawsuit by Protect Our Parks, some fearing any drawn out litigation might lead Obama to decide to build the Obama Presidential Center somewhere other than his hometown.
Blakey’s ruling doesn’t mean the group will necessarily prevail in the end, but confirms that the suit poses a formidable threat to the project. The judge indicated that he doesn’t want the litigation to drag out, and that he would strictly limit any fact gathering leading up to trial to 45 days. -Associated Press
While originally slated to open in 2021, ground has yet to be broken on the project due to the ongoing litigation in which Protect our Parks accused the city of illegally transferring park land to The Obama Foundation, a private entity. The group claims this was effectively "gifting" prized public land to a longstanding crony of Chicago politicians.
"Defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way ... to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab," reads the lawsuit.
The Chicago City Council approved the project in a 47-to-1 vote last May, with the Chicago Park District selling the land to the city for $1 before it was "gifted" to the Obama foundation. Moreover, Illinois legislators made an exception to the state's no-development rules by amending the Illinois Aquarium and Museum Act to include a "compelling public interest" provision.
The Obama Foundation, a private nonprofit, would pay $10 to the city for use of the park land for 99 years, cover the costs of building the complex and be responsible for covering operating costs for 99 years. Once built, the Obama Presidential Center’s physical structures would be transferred to the city for free, meaning the city would formally own the center but not control what happens there. -Associated Press
"They are essentially giving (property) to Obama ... for 10 cents a year for 99 years," says Mark Roth a parks advocacy lawyer.
Filing a "friend-of-the-court" brief, legal scholar Richard Epstein argued that authorities must meet an additional burden of proving an overwhelming public benefit in their decision to offer the use of public parks to "well-connected figures such as Obama," writes AP - noting that the city's Mayor Rahm Emanuel once served as Obama's White House chief of staff.
That said, the Obama library scored a win, after Judge Blakey tossed out a complaint that taxpayers' First Amendment rights would be infringed because taxpayer money would be used for the reconfiguration of roads and traffic - and that public funds should not be used to subsidize any potential partisan political activity by Obama at the center.
City lawyers conceded Thursday that Chicago would pay an estimated $175 million to reconfigure roads to manage traffic around the center.
The lawsuit also claims that the center would interfere with migrating butterflies and birds.
City lawyers said Protect Our Parks misread the law, misrepresented how the approval process played out and exaggerated potential environmental disruptions.
The center would comprise 20 acres (8 hectares) of the 500-acre (202-hectare) park. Its centerpiece would be a 225-foot (69-meter) museum tower, surrounded by a cluster of smaller buildings, including a 300-seat auditorium. -Associated Press
According to lawyers for the city, the center would create 5,000 jobs during construction and more than 2,500 permanent positions, with an estimated 760,000 people visiting each year.