A federal judge’s decision yesterday to allow a lawsuit against the City of Chicago and the Chicago Parks District to proceed will delay the progress of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC), which has been designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburg Associates.  Controversially sited on public land—Frederick Law Olmsted’s Jackson Park on the city’s South Side—the competition-winning scheme was legally challenged by the nonprofit Protect Our Parks organization on that grounds that public parkland has been improperly given over to a private foundation. Judge John Robert Blakey’s ruling denied the city’s request that the lawsuit be dismissed and determined that the plaintiffs had standing to sue because of local taxpayers’ rights to object to how public assets are used.

Several of Protect Our Parks objections were dismissed by the judge, however. These included First Amendment concerns regarding public resources being channeled into organizations (like the Obama Foundation) that could host and promote political speech. Additionally, the judge rejected the nonprofit’s claim that the presidential center’s plan would cause certain plaintiffs environmental and aesthetic harm.

The ruling will likely delay construction for months at least, and, with it, the plan by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Their campus, approximately 20 acres on the west side of the park, includes a multi-building complex, organized around an expansive plaza, and a masonry tower. The landscape, conceived by Michael Van Valkenburg Associates, includes green roofs on the lower structures.

The lawsuit will bring more scrutiny to the process that brought the presidential center to Jackson Park (the location of the epochal World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893), and signals that public property can’t make its way onto private balance sheets without intensive judicial review. The University of Chicago, which backed the winning bid, offered land in the park it didn’t own for the presidential center. Because the Obama Presidential Center will not contain presidential archives administered by The National Archives and Records Administration, Protect Our Parks has argued that the Obama Foundation is purely a private foundation, and that it’s therefore improper to take public land for its benefit. Currently, the Obama Foundation has 99-year lease on the Jackson Park parcel, which it purchased from the city for only $10. Throughout the term of the lease, the city will own the land, but the foundation will have control over the presidential center’s operations.  

“The Obama Foundation could make this issue go away by using vacant or city-owned land on the South Side for the Obama Presidential Center, or, better still, land owned by the University of Chicago,” said Charles Birnbaum, President & CEO of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, which has advocated keeping the presidential center out of Jackson Park.

The Obama Foundation, responded to the judge’s ruling with this statement: "We believe the lawsuit is without merit. We are confident that our plan for the Obama Presidential Center is consistent with Chicago's rich tradition of locating world-class museums in its parks, and we look forward to developing a lasting cultural institution on the South Side."

Speaking for the city, Ed Siskel, Corporation Counsel for the city of Chicago, said: “The Obama Presidential Center will bring transformative investment to the South Side, create hundreds of permanent jobs, and inspire young Chicagoans and people from across the world to follow the lead of Barack and Michelle Obama. We are pleased that the court dismissed some of the claims and made clear that the proceedings will move forward expeditiously."

In addition to Protect Our Parks’ opposition are the objections from local neighbors (nearly all of whom want to keep the presidential center in their part of the city.) They are mounting pressure for the Obama Foundation to sign a community benefits agreement that would require the presidential center to offer a broad range of economic development, education, employment, housing, and transportation benefits for neighbors. The Obama Foundation has so far refused.

Perhaps most ominously for the South Side plan is the precedent in Chicago for ambitious museums being scuttled by preservationist nonprofit lawsuits. In 2016, George Lucas walked away from a plan to build a museum designed by MAD Architects along the city’s lakefront after objections and a lawsuit from Friends of the Parks. He eventually decided to build the museum in Los Angeles. Judge Blakey quoted from a Lucas Museum lawsuit decision in allowing the presidential center lawsuit to proceed.

But Protect Our Parks says it is in favor of the presidential center being built on the South Side, not just in the public park. “The Obamas aren’t the Lucas Museum,” says Herbert Caplan, president and founder of Protect Our Parks. “One of Obama’s arguments for building in Jackson Park is that he has a close connection to Chicago. I can’t see him suddenly deciding that if he can’t build it in Jackson Park, as opposed to any other area on the South Side, that he’s going to pick up his marbles and leave.”