Tracking the OPC
There has been much activity this month, but it’s hard to tell in what direction it is heading.
In the Courts
On July 20 there was a hearing in the U.S. District Court on the Motion for Preliminary Injunction filed last month by attorneys for Protect Our Parks and its six co-plaintiffs related to construction work for the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. The injunction would prohibit any construction work for the OPC until the resolution of POP’s Complaint (filed in April) charging that the federal reviews of the OPC were fundamentally flawed and that they must be re-done. Consideration of that Complaint has been stymied by the Defendants, who are looking to stall that legal review as long as possible.
The central focus of the POP Complaint – that the federal reviews of the OPC project ignored statutory requirements to include consideration of “all feasible and prudent alternatives” and to prohibit segmentation of the project – was generally side-stepped or avoided entirely in the oral statements by the Defendants’ legal team.
∙ The lawyer for the federal agencies mentioned that alternative locations had already been looked at by the City before it had approved the choice of Jackson Park. But there is absolutely no evidence of such due diligence and ample evidence that the City deferred completely to the Obama Foundation.
∙ The lawyers for the City and Park District stressed that the OPC had been approved by the City Council, the Planning Commission, and the Park District Board, and that was all that was needed.
∙ The lawyer for the Obama Foundation went even farther afield, arguing that the Plaintiffs would not suffer “irreparable harm” as claimed if construction began because any changes made during construction (we would point to the cutting of some 800-1000 trees) would have only a temporary negative impact. Instead, the Foundation lawyer asserted that any delay in the construction schedule would cause irreparable, devastating harm to the contractors hired to build the OPC and to the Obama Foundation itself, endangering its financial status and its fundraising efforts.
The Foundation’s alarmist argument points to the still open question of whether it has securely in hand, as required, sufficient funds for construction costs that have risen to around $700 million. The Foundation’s court filing reported that it had some $200 million in donations and pledges restricted specifically for the construction of the OPC as planned and expressed great concern that further delay and uncertainty would put it at risk of losing some of those funds. There seems to be little financial cushion there.
Judge Blakey has not set a schedule for a final ruling on the Motion for Preliminary Injunction. That will come sometime after the POP legal team has filed an additional brief (due by the end of this week) and after the submission of any additional material by the Defendants.
For those wanting more detail about the hearing, the texts of the POP motion and the responses filed by the Defendants (Federal agencies, City and Chicago Park District, and Obama Foundation) have been usefully posted or reported on by the Hyde Park Herald. A broader perspective on the legal issues and history of the OPC saga is provided in the Chicago Reader.
In the media
Meanwhile, the Obama Foundation, with the support of the City, has been waging a major marketing campaign for several months now to cultivate support for the OPC by Chicago residents and, most especially, potential donors.
Most recently, Valerie Jarrett, President of the Foundation, published an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, proclaiming that the OPC is coming and the South Side will reap the benefits and repeating unsubstantiated promises for high numbers of annual visitors yielding large economic benefits. Jarrett dismissed those challenging the OPC plans as “a few voices from outside the community.”
That mischaracterization prompted a strong response — Right project, wrong location — from Hyde Parker Jamie Kalven of the Invisible Institute and a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the federal review process. Kalven pointed to the specific legal basis for the suit and extended an invitation to the Obama Foundation to engage, at long last, in an open discussion of “feasible and prudent alternatives.”
Expressions of concern about the location of the OPC in Jackson Park continue steadily, with some recent letters to the Tribune catching attention. One challenged the claim that the OPC will fail to attract visitors unless it is in Jackson Park, a fear, the writer noted, that only perpetuates the underselling of the South Side and deprives the area of a powerful catalyst for development in a non-park location. Another proclaimed that Jackson Park belongs not just to the South Side but to the entire city, and asked why parkland must be destroyed when there are other viable site options that would assure the success of the OPC in redeveloping the South Side without the destruction of the park.
Earlier in July the Tribune offered, at least indirectly, yet another commentary on the OPC plan when it editorialized about the tawdry saga of the City’s capitulation to the Bears in disfiguring Soldier Field twenty years ago. Now, it concluded, “Chicago has a lakefront eyesore and the Bears have an inadequate stadium” that they may soon abandon. Commonalities between the Soldier Field debacle and the looming shadow of the OPC had already been presented in late June in a cautionary op-ed by Michael Rachlis and Richard Epstein, lawyers for the POP lawsuits. They warned about the unanticipated burden on taxpayers as a result of such sweetheart deals pushed through without full review or consideration of long-term consequences.
It seems all too likely that twenty years from now there could be a similar reevaluation of the OPC if it is constructed in Jackson Park as now proposed.
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