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Judge rules against class action

Protect Our Parks’ long-running fight to stop construction of former President Barack Obama’s Jackson Park museum and campus has reached an end in federal district courts. But the plaintiffs plan to take the case to an appeals court, continuing a years-long fight against the project, which is well under way.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey issued a final judgment in favor of the defendants — including the Obama Foundation, several federal agencies and the city of Chicago — in the Northern District of Illinois.

The Obama Foundation celebrated the decision as a milestone, declaring the decision “a victory for everyone who has worked with us on this journey to bring investment and opportunity to the South Side of Chicago. With today’s decision, the court allows us to fulfill our commitment to create a world-class destination that will attract people from around the world and serve as a reminder to everyone, but especially young people in Chicago, that people have the power to be the change they want to see.”

But Richard Epstein, an attorney for Protect Our Parks, said his team supports the decision, which essentially ends their so-far unsuccessful attempt at the district level and allows them to take their case to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We don’t want to hold a court on this issue. We know what the outcome will be: Judge Blakey won’t vote for us when we’ve already had three rulings against us,” Epstein said.

POP has long maintained that it does not oppose placing the Obama Presidential Center on the South Side. But it says the Jackson Park plan would result in the complete clearing of mature trees, disruption of annual bird migration and the closure of four major South Side thoroughfares. Instead, it was proposed to be located west of Jackson Park, near Washington Park.

But the group’s legal efforts to stop the center, which date back to 2018, were unsuccessful. And while the legal battle contributed to the staggering delay, construction has been going on for more than a year now, with trees being removed, the roadway up and running concrete structures rise from the ground.

The center is expected to debut in 2025 and cost about $700 million to build, another $90 million to prepare exhibits and lighting for the center’s opening, plus $40 million to operate in the first year.

Financial disclosures show the Obama Foundation paid law firm Sidley Austin $6.2 million between 2018 and 2021. The vast majority are related to the ongoing POP litigation, a foundation spokesman said.

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Michael Rachlis, another lawyer for Protect Our Parks, says the latest ruling allows the group to appeal its three main arguments in the new venue, albeit in a more limited manner. Among the issues they hope the appeals court will consider are whether the public trust was breached by the foundation’s private use of public property, whether the foundation met the financial terms of the master agreement that allowed them to transfer the park from the city, and whether federal impact reviews are sufficient. on the roads and the historical park.

In court documents, POP argued that the federal reviews that allowed construction to continue in protected park areas were improperly divided and insufficient, and failed to identify possible alternatives to Jackson Park.

Protect Our Parks also argued that the city “delegated all significant decision-making authority to the Obama Foundation,” essentially sealing an agreement that transferred the parkland to a private entity for 99 years at a cost of just $10.

Blakey denied the claims in the March rulingwriting that the city “has not relinquished control or ownership of the OPC site to the Obama Foundation” and that state law affirms that presidential centers provide a public benefit because they “serve valuable public purposes, including … advancing human knowledge and understanding , educating and inspiring the public, and expanding recreational and cultural resources and opportunities.”

The Obama Foundation and city officials have argued that the construction will restore roads in the park, improve pedestrian and bicyclist access to the park and lakefront, improve the park’s biodiversity, bring new amenities such as recreational spaces and a new branch of the Chicago Public Library for nearby residents, and add much-needed economic development of the south side.

If POP grants the appeals, it will not affect ongoing construction or programming, the foundation said.

Epstein doesn’t expect the case to be fully briefed until January, arguing “as early as next spring,” meaning a lot more construction could happen in the meantime.

Rachlis said construction is “far from complete” and the center’s opening is not a given. There is “much to be gained and protected in the short term in Jackson Park,” including “several hundred” trees that have not been cut down and road work that has yet to begin. “The integrity of the park itself hasn’t been changed,” and even if there are more changes, “there are remedies that can be fixed.”

Rachlis, who mostly worked on the case on a pro bono basis (Epstein, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, works entirely on a pro bono basis), said the team also wants to set a precedent for future environmental, public and parks cases.



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