Former President Obama's non-profit wants to break ground soon on his presidential library on Chicago's south side, but if Chicago's residents have their say, it could be a while before the brutalist monument to the controversial president sullies the city's beloved skyline.
A group called Protect Our Parks filed suit in federal court on Monday, alleging that Obama's group — and the city of Chicago — is skirting the established process for getting approval to destroy parts of one of Chicago's most famous parks by claiming the new structures will house Obama's presidential papers. Since Obama's library will have only digital copies of his records — and no "library" to speak of outside of a satellite branch of the Chicago Public Library — the group says the monument is part of a massive city government bait-and-switch.
“Although that original purpose of an official Presidential Library no longer exists,” the complaint says, “the defendants continue to forge ahead to advance a totally different private nongovernmental project on public parkland.”
The suit also says that the city and state were prohibited by law from turning over the 20 acres of protected parkland, and that the city violated its own park district code by "renting" the land for an amount far less than market value, and ultimately at a cost to the city.
The complex — a massive box-like white building and parking garage surrounded by a sprawling park full of modernist public art — will be built on 20 acres of two large, historic parks on Chicago's south side: Washington Park and Jackson Park. Both green spaces were part of an original "Plan of Chicago" dating as far back as the late 1800s and feature landscaping by Frederick Olmsted, the designer of New York City's Central Park.
Those parks were supposed to be preserved for the citizens of Chicago, not handed over to a former resident for an ugly building, the group says (perhaps without so much editorialization, but you get the drift). Chicago's south side has so much blighted property, it would be simple to find a more suitable, vacant location that doesn't infringe on Chicago residents' use and enjoyment of public land.
Back in May, community members tried to convince Obama, his organization, and the city to sign a "community benefit package" that would assure nearby residents that they'd still be able to use the park, and that the park would benefit residents by setting aside jobs for locals, encouraging local investment, preserving local history and culture, and protecting nearby low-income housing.
They even asked the former president to simply hear them out at a town hall meeting.
And that's when Protect Our Parks filed suit.
Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who once said he would "move heaven and Earth" to establish the park inside the city limits, dismissed the group's concerns, according to reports.