Group sues to block OPC construction in Jackson Park

Staff Writer

A Chicago Group with a history of preventing a transfer of public parkland to private use has gone to federal court to oppose the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park.

Protect Our Parks, Inc. (POP), which 11 years ago worked to stop an agreement between the Park District and the private Latin School of Chicago over the construction of a soccer field in Lincoln Park, filed suit Monday afternoon in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

The organization, which describes itself in the lawsuit as a “non profit park advocacy organization dedicated to preserving, protecting and improving Chicago’s parks and forest preserves,” was organized over a decade ago. POP President Herbert Caplan told the Herald that its administrative group consists of around five people who conduct regular meetings and that POP’s recent activities have been mostly letters and press release commentaries on public land issues.

Mark D. Roth, the plaintiffs’ attorney, is a partner at Roth Fioretti, LLC, alongside former alderman Robert Fioretti, who recently lost the Democratic Primary for President of the Cook County Board to Toni Preckwinkle.

Caplan said the group had been mostly inactive until the “Jackson Park deal got us riled up again and ready to do something.” He rejects the Obama Foundation’s equivalent replacement parkland for that to be displaced by the OPC campus, calling the idea of rooftop gardens on the OPC’s library and forum buildings “a joke” and argued that it would be at taxpayers’ expense “because of the hidden tax they’ve built into it,” referring to a provision of a 2016 amendment to the Illinois Park District Aquarium and Museum Act. He also opposes the plan to close a section of Cornell Drive, calling it “illegal,” “a bad idea” and “meaningless.”

Caplan, formerly of Hyde Park and presently of Lakeview, said a number of POP supporters live in Hyde Park but did not wish to be named plaintiffs, he said, “because of the politics of the situation and the racial implications. People were afraid of being identified as having some racial bias against the Obama project, regardless of the legalities of the situation.” The only member of the POP administrative group listed as a plaintiff on the lawsuit is Charlotte Adelman of Wilmette.

“The parks don’t belong to the people in Hyde Park,” said Adelman, a retired attorney and U. of C. alumna who describes herself as “somebody who is very involved in the environment.” She rejects the being called an “interlocutor,” as someone who does live in Hyde Park or Chicago. “Parks do not belong to the people in Chicago. They belong to the residents of the State of Illinois. That just happens to be a fact. The people who happen to be living there today, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be living there next week or a year from now. They have no ownership of that property.”

“As a resident of the State of Illinois, I am entitled to have my viewpoint on this. And Mr. Obama’s corporation is not an Illinois corporation. It’s a Washington, D.C., corporation,” Adelman said.

The lawsuit alleges that the Park District’s $1 sale of the OPC campus site to the City of Chicago for the Obama Foundation’s use is in violation of existing law and “a conscious scheme to negate these existing protective laws.” It argues that the municipal ordinance allowing for a Presidential Library in Jackson Park has been negated by the Obama Foundation’s decision to relinquish control of presidential papers to the National Archives and Records Administration, thereby making the Presidential Library a Presidential Center.

As a result of this, the “transfer of valuable public park property to a nongovernment private entity,” the lawsuit asserts that the transaction must be for an amount suitable for park purposes determined by two appraisals, a provision of the Park District Code. The plaintiffs allege that the defendants, the City and the Chicago Park District, have not done this.

“If they want to get parkland for something that is not public park use, they have to follow the limitations set out in the various statutes,” Caplan said. “There’re various procedures about what can be done in order to achieve that, but it cannot be achieved by the Park District simply transferring the lands for nothing to the City to transfer it to this nongovernmental private entity.”

The lawsuit says this action has been done “in a classic Chicago political way, known as a short con shell game, a corrupt scheme to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab.” The lawsuit argues that Chicago and Illinois taxpayers, without Obama Foundation funds, will be made to fund infrastructural investments and “an egregious new special add-on Park District real estate tax to pay for the Presidential Center’s upkeep.”

Furthermore, the lawsuit argues against the 2016 amendment to the Illinois Museum Act incorporating presidential centers into the legislation as “declaratory of existing law and [not] as a new enactment” is impossible, because “an ‘amendment’ by its very existence, cannot be declaratory of prior existing law.”

As the State had deeded Jackson Park to the Park District with the stipulation that it be “free to all persons forever,” the lawsuit further alleges that constructing the OPC site in Jackson Park “deprives each citizen of their fractional interest in the public trust land.

On the counts of violation of due process, breach of public trust, ultra vires action (action done without legal authority), declaratory judgment and special legislation per the Illinois Museum Act and a First Amendment violation—that the definitively political OPC will be funded in part by a real estate tax—the plaintiffs ask the Court to prevent the transaction of parkland between the Park District and City, prevent construction of the OPC on public trust lands and award them attorneys’ fees.

When reached for comment, a spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the OPC “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for South Side investment and to honor the legacy of Barack and Michelle Obama. “While some choose to stand in the way of progress for the South Side, we are focused on making progress in every community in Chicago.” Efforts to reach the Park District and the Obama Foundation for comment were unsuccessful by press time.