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What is Protect Our Parks? Why did it file suit?
Protect Our Parks is a not-for-profit organization founded in 2007 to combat – successfully – a plan to permit the Latin School, a private educational institution, to take over an existing natural grass field in Lincoln Park used for open public recreational activities in order to build an artificial turf soccer field that would be under the primary control of the Latin School. Seeing similar issues in the plan to cede public land in Jackson Park to the Obama Foundation for the construction of the Obama Presidential Center, POP filed suit in federal court in mid-May 2018 to block what it views as an abuse of the public trust by the City and Chicago Park District, setting the stage for a “David v. Goliath” legal contest.
POP supports locating the OPC on Chicago’s South Side, but not on public parkland. If the POP suit (or its appeal) succeeds, the Obama Presidential Center could not be constructed in Jackson Park.
What was JPW’s relationship to the POP lawsuit?
JPW was not involved in any discussions or decisions leading to the filing of the POP lawsuit although we were acquainted with some of those involved. Although former Mayor Emanuel immediately labeled the suit frivolous, JPW has believed from the beginning that the suit raised some very important questions about the proper stewardship of a public good such as Jackson Park and about the hidden processes by which decisions about the Park have been made. JPW followed the progress of the lawsuit in its Updates and provided technical support as the suit progressed.
Noteworthy events along the way
→ In a July 2018 hearing responding to the POP suit, the City requested a hearing delay for a surprising reason: As reported in Crain’s, the City asserted that “The City Council has yet to introduce, much less enact, an ordinance authorizing the construction and operation of the [Obama Presidential] center….there is a significant gap in the approvals necessary for the project to proceed, and in the details of how the foundation will be authorized to use the site and operate the center.” The City maintained that a delay was therefore necessary for the City to introduce and the City Council to enact the needed ordinance and approvals. Given this admission, many observers questioned the basis for the Chicago Plan Commission’s May 17 unanimous approval of the Obama Foundation plans for the site.
→ A September 2018 hearing addressed POP’s motion to halt Chicago Park District work on a replacement track/field in Jackson Park on the grounds that it violated the judge’s stay on any construction relating to the Obama Presidential Center until the lawsuit was settled. POP cited the language of the “donation agreement” signed in February 2018 by which the Obama Foundation agreed to pay for the track relocation because “the site selected for the OPC would necessitate the relocation of an existing multi-use artificial turf field with a running track.” The City and Park District continued to assert that the OPC and the track construction were “separate” projects and instead asked for a further delay of the next hearing. Federal Judge John R. Blakey expressed “disappointment” with the City’s arguments and declined to delay further consideration of the POP lawsuit.
→In October 2018, in response to the POP discovery requests, the long-secret 2014 University of Chicago bid package for the Obama Presidential Library (now Center) was released, documenting the sweeping scale of the University’s involvement in the project including the golf course “upgrade” and the cavalier treatment of Jackson Park (by the University and the City) as a blank canvas to be modified at will.
→In January 2019, JPW in partnership with Preservation Chicago submitted an amicus curiae brief to make two points: first, that the argument continuously put forth by the City and Park District (and Obama Foundation) that there is a “Chicago tradition” of building museums in public parks is factually inaccurate; second, that the status of the eleven museums now situated in Chicago parks was not threatened in any way by the POP challenge to the OPC siting in Jackson Park.
→In late March 2018, the Reva and David Logan Foundation awarded a $100,000 grant to Protect Our Parks in support of its lawsuit. In announcing the grant, Logan Foundation board chairman Richard Logan commented “We believe that this ‘land grab’ is both legally and morally wrong, and that the City of Chicago, the Obama Foundation and their partners need to reconsider their choice of location for this project. There are so many sites in the city that could benefit from the kudos, the opportunities for employment and the neighborhood regeneration without taking public land and destroying historic city parklands.”
Decision goes against POP
On June 11, 2019, Judge Blakey ruled in the City’s favor and dismissed the Protect Our Parks lawsuit contesting the siting of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. JPW was disappointed that Judge Blakey issued a narrow ruling based on a narrow reading of the 1970 Paepcke decision by the Illinois Supreme Court that concerned the permissible scope of judicial review in public trust cases.
The ruling put the spotlight on the federal reviews. which must be completed before OPC construction can begin.
The ruling also provided an opportunity for Mayor Lori Lightfoot to comment on the OPC project and its attendant controversies. JPW welcomed her emphasis on working with community stakeholders and the Obama Foundation to resolve remaining issues.
6/11/19 STATEMENT FROM MAYOR LORI E. LIGHTFOOT ON OBAMA PRESIDENT CENTER COURT RULING
“Chicago is where President Obama discovered his love for community service, and the Obama Presidential Center will honor his presidency and inspire the next generation of leaders. The court today made unequivocally clear that this project may be located in Jackson Park, marking a significant step forward in this historic project and for our entire city. I am committed to ensuring that this community hub creates unprecedented cultural opportunities and economic growth on the South Side. I look forward to working with community stakeholders and the Obama Foundation to ensure that neighboring communities share in this growth. Toward that important end, I look forward to meeting with community stakeholders and the Obama Foundation to resolve remaining issues so that the benefits of this important project can be shared by all.”
POP appeal has been launched
On July 10, 2019, POP filed an appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit seeking a review of Judge Blakey’s ruling. The appeal will be heard by a panel of three judges. The schedule for the review has not been set.
Noted legal scholar Richard Epstein will lead POP’s appeal. Epstein, an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago who also holds appointments at New York University and the Hoover Institution, had earlier submitted an amicus brief in support of the POP lawsuit. Chicago lawyer Michael Rachlis, known for his work on land use questions, will serve as co-counsel.
A focus of the appeal will be the alleged failure of the City and Park District to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities as trustees of a public asset in agreeing to give the Obama Foundation, a private entity, effective control of the Jackson Park site for a period of 99 years and a payment of $10 in a transaction that raises serious questions of insider favoritism and conflicts of interest. By making that decision without full evaluation of the Jackson Park site or of the costs to Chicago taxpayers and without due consideration of alternatives, the City and Park District did not meet the applicable standards for diligence that is required in such a transaction. Epstein more fully outlined his argument in an interview with the Hyde Park Herald.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
For more detailed information about Protect Our Parks and its legal appeal, visit https://protectourparks.org/about/