It’s not too late for the city and Obama Foundation to do the right thing. They can still quite literally rethink the dubious OPC project from the ground up.
The decision to locate the Obama Presidential Center in historic Jackson Park has received strong backing from the Chicago establishment. No surprise. Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council expressly, and unconstitutionally, delegated their authority over public lands to the Obama Foundation and the former president. Along with associated structures, they plan to build a 235-foot-high white obelisk that would arguably resemble a stake through the landscaped heart of a Frederick Law Olmsted masterpiece. And disregarding her applicable fiduciary duties, Mayor Lori Lightfoot appears poised to acquiesce.
But the project is not a fait accompli. To build the discordant OPC upon boggy ground near the lakefront requires at least several dubious steps: a 99-year lease disguised as a “use” agreement with the OPC for nearly 20 acres of prime parkland worth perhaps $10 million per acre; shutting down four major roads and widening several others at a cost easily in excess of $175 million; cutting down at least 350 old-growth trees, and snarling traffic along the Chicago lakefront for years to come. The city, as its current deficit approaches $1 billion, stunningly ignores the fact that such budget-busting costs could be avoided at other South Side sites more suitable for the OPC.
At the recent Obama Foundation Summit, Michelle Obama stated, “Barack’s presidential library could have been (built) anywhere in the world,” but that she and her husband could not find a “better place to put it than in our own backyard.” And why? To serve, said the former president and first lady, as a potential catalyst and economic engine for creating trade union jobs and fueling growth on the South Side with an estimated 700,000 annual OPC visitors who will patronize neighborhood businesses.
Unfortunately, the foundation’s sunny pronouncements comprise multiple inaccuracies.
The OPC is not a “presidential library.” That designation was quietly abandoned in 2017 because the gigantic structure could not satisfy federal requirements. In fact, the glitzy OPC serves no official government function at all. Instead, it is to house foundation offices on two floors, with exhibit space and some public spaces. Superfluous add-ons to the project are an unneeded branch of the Chicago Public Library and an athletic facility just around the corner from the recently remodeled YMCA and an existing track and field.
Nor is the OPC likely to succeed as a magical economic engine that drives South Side growth. By way of comparison, Jackson Park’s splendid Museum of Science & Industry annually hosts more than 1.5 million visitors in its roughly 400,000 square feet of exhibition space. But sitting on the edge of Hyde Park, it generates little if any business for local restaurants and shops. Realistically, the smaller OPC will do no better.
Besides, there are better places to fuel growth in the Obamas’ backyard. Washington Park, to the west of Hyde Park, is located near public transportation and expressways, and much vacant land nearby offers more potential for the kind of development we all wish to foster. A Washington Park site also could come without the huge social, aesthetic and financial burdens imposed on the city by the Jackson Park plan.
And just as the Obama Foundation and the city refuse to discuss these burdens, they similarly ignore serious administrative and legal hurdles the Jackson Park plan must yet clear before OPC construction could begin. For example, in July, the National Park Service and Federal Highway Administration issued an exhaustive preliminary assessment of effects (AOE), which examined whether the OPC plan is consistent with federal laws governing historical preservation.
The AOE explained in great detail the “adverse effect” the proposed OPC would have on both Jackson Park and the adjacent Midway Plaisance. It concluded these “changes alter . . . the design of the cultural landscape in ways that diminish the overall integrity of spatial organization in the property as a whole.” This potent criticism has not gone unnoticed, but it remains unaddressed by the city.
Also waiting in the wings is another review under the National Environmental Policy Act. In all likelihood, it will require a substantial reconfiguration of the OPC given its massive and immediate environmental dislocation, as rising water levels in the lake and nearby lagoon would threaten OPC structures.
Meanwhile, in the currently pending lawsuit brought by Protect Our Parks, a U.S. District Court judge’s refusal to reopen the case in light of the aforementioned AOE, which was issued just a month after he granted summary judgment for the city, was appealed in late November. Among other things, Protect Our Parks’ appeal argues that the judge’s earlier decision guts the venerable “public trust” doctrine by only requiring the city, without any independent and meaningful scrutiny of the project’s net public benefit or harm, to express “a sufficient legislative intent” to designate Jackson Park as the OPC site. Such a lack of scrutiny allows the entire OPC transaction to be riddled with insider favoritism and conflicts of interest.
None of these issues were aired during the foundation’s recent summit. Instead, the proposed Jackson Park site for the OPC was propagandistically hyped as an already done deal. But as hip-hop’s renowned Public Enemy counseled, “Don’t believe the hype.” Chicagoans should know that critical public trust doctrine issues are now before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. A federal review of historical preservation is ongoing. A looming environmental review will take a hard look at the rising water levels, traffic issues and the clear-cutting of hundreds of mature trees in the park.
Of course, it is not too late for the city and Obama Foundation to do the right thing. They can still quite literally rethink the dubious OPC project from the ground up.
Richard Epstein and Michael Rachlis represent Protect Our Parks in litigation seeking to have the location for the Obama Presidential Center reconsidered.
This article was featured in Crain’s Chicago Business. Read the story here.