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Lawsuit challenging Obama Presidential Center will go forward

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A judge’s ruling could spell trouble for the $500 million South Side development

Former President Barack Obama points to a diagram of the proposed presidential center at a May, 2017 presentation in Chicago.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Tuesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey issued a decision allowing a lawsuit challenging the location and legality of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago’s Jackson Park to move forward. The ruling has the potential to delay construction on the $500 million project and possibly force its organizers to select another site entirely.

While it doesn’t guarantee the challenge will ultimately win in court, Blakey’s ruling does mean that he believes the group has grounds on which to proceed. It comes one week after the city concluded oral arguments in its motion to dismiss the suit.

The legal claim against the Obama Center was filed in May against the City of Chicago and the Park District by nonprofit group Protect Our Parks, Inc. and three additional individuals. It argues that transferring 20 acres of the South Side park to a private entity such as the Obama Foundation violates both state law and Chicago Park District code.

The complaint also alleges an “institutional bait-and-switch” on the grounds that the Obama Center isn’t technically a presidential library since it will provide digital access to the 44th President’s archives instead of a physical collection of papers housed at the site.

A rendering of the Obama Presidential Center.
Obama Foundation

Designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, the Obama Presidential Center includes a stone-clad museum building, a community center, athletic facilities, and a new Chicago Public Library branch. City officials OK’d the project’s zoning as well as a 99-year, $10 land lease in 2018. The plan will also require $175 million in road realignments in and around the park.

For some of the center’s supporters, the ruling to let the lawsuit progress is worryingly reminiscent of the 2016 legal challenge the group Friends of the Parks brought against the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts south of Soldier Field. That situation led filmmaker George Lucas to abandon his Chicago plans and build the $400 million cultural institution in Los Angeles.

In addition to the pending lawsuit, the Obama Center is also the subject of a ongoing federal review, triggered by the historic significance of the Jackson Park site. The Obama Foundation had hoped to break ground this year.