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Judge dismisses lawsuit blocking Obama Center construction in Jackson Park

Curbed logo Curbed 6/11/2019 Jay Koziarz
Barack Obama in a suit and tie: Former President Barack Obama presents early plans for the center in 2017. © AP Former President Barack Obama presents early plans for the center in 2017.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey dismissed a lawsuit to block the construction of the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. The ruling removes a significant hurdle that had prevented the $500 million project from breaking ground on Chicago’s South Side.

Nonprofit environmental group Protect Our Parks filed the suit in May 2018, arguing that the city could not legally transfer 20 acres of the historic Frederick Law Olmsted-designed park to a private entity such as the Obama Foundation. Protect Our Parks says it will appeal the ruling.

The Obama Foundation planned to begin construction on the center last year and open in 2021. The lawsuit and a yet-to-be-completed federal historic review have delayed that timeline.

“Today’s ruling, while disappointing, is by no means the final word,” Charles A. Birnbaum of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, an official consulting party in the federal review process, wrote in a statement to Curbed.

“Though the carefully orchestrated local approvals process has been enabled by pliant municipal officials, there are still federal-level reviews underway for this nationally significant work of landscape architecture that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has come out in favor of the center and its controversial location, but also pledged to negotiate a community benefits agreement, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Such a document would guarantee that long-time residents could remain in the area through rent assistance or property tax relief. Obama said he would work with local organizations to ensure that housing in the area remains affordable for seniors, disabled people, or those on a fixed income, but did not sign a binding agreement.

Designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, the Obama project was envisioned to act more like a community center than a typical presidential library. The South Side project includes a museum dedicated the 44th President of the United States but also walking trails, gardens, athletic fields, events spaces, and a Chicago Public Library branch.

a view of a city © Obama Foundation
The project’s obelisk-like museum building would rise 235 feet above Jackson Park.
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