Rejecting opponents’ allegations of a land grab, a federal judge in Chicago gave the green light Tuesday to plans for construction of the Obama Presidential Center on a 20-acre site in Jackson Park.
In the end, Judge Robert Blakey said it was not even a close call.
"Even though this might be an important case," he said, "it is not a difficult case."
Opponents of the project, which will include President Obama's presidential library, called it a "massive giveaway,” which grants the Obama Foundation free title to public lands worth millions of dollars.
“The city abdicated its responsibility,” Attorney Mark Roth told the judge. “It just did whatever the foundation wanted it to do.”
City lawyers however, argued there was nothing illegal about the proposed usage of the Jackson Park lands, saying the city’s agreement would allow it to seize title to the property over any future transgressions. Furthermore, they said they had obtained guarantees of 52 free days, as well as free admission for all school groups accompanied by teachers.
“There can be no question that there are direct benefits,” Lawyer Michael Scordro said. “This is a museum that we should be grateful it is open.”
Blakey conceded that the case illustrated what he called the “classic struggle” between those who want to preserve parks and open lands, and those responsible for overseeing the lands in a changing world—but he said resolution of the case had to come through established rules, not the courts.
“The facts do not warrant a trial and construction should commence without delay,” the judge said. And in a brief addendum, quoting the Astronaut Alan Shepard on the launch pad, he advised the library’s backers it was time to “light this candle.”
Supporters were quick to declare victory.
“This library will be located where it is accessible to all Americans and the world,” longtime backer Leon Finney declared outside the court. “This is a major victory for all people, regardless of race, color, or creed.”
Jackson Park resident Louise McCurry said the decision would open the door to greater opportunity for neighborhood residents.
“The Obama Center represents hope,” she said. “Hope that we haven’t had on the South Side for a long time.”
But opponents said they are not done yet, promising to appeal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and suggesting they may ask the judge to put his decision on hold while that appeal commences.
“It’s probably the most damaging decision we could possibly have,” Attorney Herbert Caplan told reporters. “This is probably the biggest land theft since the Indians were persuaded to turn over title of Manhattan to the Dutch for a handful of beads.”
At an unrelated event, Mayor Lightfoot hailed the court decision but said she hears her opponents’ concerns.
“We already have seen some displacement,” she said. “And we need to make sure that their rights are respected, and they can stay in their neighborhoods.”
A spokesman for the city law department said no construction can commence immediately due to ongoing federal reviews of the Jackson Park site.
The Obama Foundation was not present in court but in a statement from his Washington office, CEO David Simas expressed gratitude for the judge’s decision.
“Our vision for the Obama Presidential Center has always been one where the location reinforces the project’s core aims, a celebration of history, a place of connection, engagement for the public, and an investment in community,” he said. “We couldn’t be more excited to move forward on our plans, arm-in-arm with our neighbors in Chicago, ready to bring investment and jobs to the South Side.”