Work begins at $700M Obama Center but opponents say fight isn’t over

Protect Our Parks will appeal judge’s decision that cleared way for project in Jackson Park

Chicago /
Aug.August 16, 2021 05:09 PM
Renderings of The Obama Presidential Center and the former President (Getty, Obama)

Barack Obama with a rendering of the Obama Presidential Center. (Getty, Obama)

As construction crews on Monday began preliminary work on the $700 million Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, a local advocacy group was prepping for another run at stopping it.

Protect Our Parks said it would appeal a federal court judge’s decision to deny its emergency request to halt construction. The group is among several that have battled the Obama Foundation in court to move the complex two miles away to Washington Park.

Protect Our Parks and other neighborhood organizations want the center built farther south because they believe it will better bolster a needier area with jobs and development, and will not impact Dusable Lake Shore Drive or eat up Lake Michigan parkland. And while the long-awaited Obama Center project has drawn the attention of developers and investors to the South Side, Jackson Park neighbors fear it will bring more gentrification and price hikes that will squeeze them out of their homes.

On Aug. 6, U.S. District Judge John Blakely denied a preliminary injunction to stop the project, following oral arguments in July. He did not issue an opinion, but the ruling allowed the Obama Foundation to close on its purchase Friday of 19.5 acres in the 550-acre park. It also allowed for work to begin. On Monday, construction crews started to take apart the Jackson Park football field to make way for roadway infrastructure.

Richard Epstein, the attorney representing Protect Our Parks, called the ruling “a very bad setback,” but added, “it’s not a final judgment.”

Epstein said he will file an appeal and will continue to prepare arguments for a separate lawsuit claiming the Obama Foundation, which is funding much of the center, failed to do full federal reviews of other potential sites.

That lawsuit would challenge a years-long federal review of the project because Jackson Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The review, completed in February, noted the construction and surrounding road repairs would not have a significant impact on the area. It represented a major victory toward construction of the center.

Valerie Jarrett, president of the Obama Foundation and a former senior adviser to President Obama, called Blakely’s ruling “a major victory that has been years in the making.” She added, “we are officially able to begin delivering on our commitment to Chicago’s South Side.”

The Obama Center, which is not an official presidential library, will take about four years to develop its four buildings.

Epstein said his next court effort will be aimed at keeping construction crews from taking down hundreds of trees in Jackson Park beginning in September. Jarrett said last month that only 350 trees would be taken down — the foundation said many were small or diseased — but Epstein thinks it’s more like 800.

Epstein also believes construction will create traffic jams and rerouting headaches that will bring more opponents out. And though he concedes he’s got a tough battle ahead — typically judges don’t stop projects once they’ve been started — he said he will keep fighting.

“There are so many things wrong with this park, even if we lose one battle, there are still plenty ahead,” he said.





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