The Barack Obama Presidential Center Moves Forward

A recent federal court ruling permits Barack Obama’s $500 million presidential center in Chicago’s Jackson Park to move forward. After hearing more than an hour of arguments, the judge dismissed the lawsuit from a preservationist group that objected to the use of historic public parkland. US District Court Judge John Robert Blakey — the same judge who had previously argued that the plaintiffs had standing to sue — dismissed the case on June 11 and issued a 52-page opinion calling the park advocacy group’s arguments unconvincing. “Plaintiffs attempt to twist this public benefit into a private purpose,” alleging the planned center only “seeks to preserve and enhance the legacy of the former President and his wife,” Blakey found. According to the Chicago Tribune, long term observers of the case were surprised by the decision.

Preservationists opposed the plan based on the proposed site’s use of land on the National Register of Historic Places. Opponents also criticized the city for transferring the public land to the Obama Foundation and allowing the private foundation to control the construction project. An attorney for the plaintiffs characterized the property transfer as a “massive giveaway” that lacked any benefit for the public.

Attorneys for the defendants — the City of Chicago — described the entire project as a public good.

The presidential center and the maintenance of parks were presented as the positive outcomes for the project. Defendant attorneys also challenged how the preservationist group’s interpretation of the laws on the use of public land. The attorneys argued that the group misrepresented how land approval works. Blakey agreed, pointing to “a range of cultural, artistic, and recreational opportunities.” This lawsuit challenging the location of the Obama Presidential Center was initiated in response to the final site’s announcement. In May 2018, Chicago based preservationists joined together to sue both the City of Chicago and its park division. They charged that the Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago’s plan to utilize 20 acres of Jackson Park to build the center violated the public trust doctrine. Judge Blakey allowed the lawsuit to proceed in February 2019. The decision was seen as a setback for the Obama Foundation and the city, according to CityLab. The preservation group Protect Our Parks opposed the location of Obama’s presidential center, but the case also had three other individual plaintiffs. Much of the debate revolves around interpretations of the public trust doctrine, which extends back to the nineteenth century and pertains to public and private uses of Chicago’s lakefront. These issues are also relates to contemporary concerns about the types of deals made between citizens and development entities. So much of the opposition is not to the center itself, but rather to its historic location within Jackson Park, a landmark designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1871.

Critics claim that the center would engulf a current community asset but fail to create anything new.

The plaintiffs argued that Jackson Park enjoys an international reputation and is in many ways Chicago’s version of Central Park in New York City, as both were created by Olmsted and Vaux. The struggle to establish the park on Chicago’s lakefront in the late nineteenth century spawned the modern version of the public trust doctrine. With its origins in Roman law, the doctrine places public claims to public land above private claims. In this framework, the public interest in Jackson Park supersedes that of private entities like the Obama Foundation and the University of Chicago.

Judge Blakey initially sided with the preservationists and agreed that they had standing on this basis. Similar projects have been defeated using this doctrine. For example, George Lucas’s ill-fated attempt to appropriate 17 acres of lakefront property to build a museum south of Soldier Field fell flat after a lawsuit from the preservationist group Friends of the Parks. The group argued that the museum, The Lucas Museum of Narrative Act, violated the public trust. Lucas abandoned the project before a decision was rendered in the suit. Opponents of the public trust doctrine believe it prevents the private sector from finding economically competitive uses for public land. Many are offering support for the Obama Presidential Center because they agree it should be built somewhere on the South Side. Yet, Jackson Park remains contentious due to the public trust issue, as does the refusal of the Obama Foundation to enter into a community benefits agreement to boost the economic interests of nearby South Side neighborhoods. Despite differing opinions on the issue, the court's recent decision means that the Obama Presidential Center will move forward. The center is slated for completion in 2022. It will join more than a dozen presidential libraries and museums that operate in city parks--from the Adler Planetarium to the Art Institute of Chicago.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.