Protect Our Parks lawsuit stay lifted but Jackson Park free to resume track upgrade

Staff Writer

U.S. District Court Judge John Robert Blakey lifted a stay this morning on Protect Our Parks v. Chicago Park District, the suit meant to block construction of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park, and set a hearing to consider the response to the lawsuit on the morning of Oct. 24.

Protect Our Parks attorney Bob Fioretti said that “operations have begun in Jackson Park” with construction underway on an Obama Foundation-funded track and field, contra to the City and Park District claims that the OPC itself is not under construction and that the lawsuit is premature without a City Council transfer of the designated OPC site from the Park District to the City.

Attorneys for the City and Park District disagreed.

“We never said nothing would happen anywhere in Jackson Park,” said Joe Roddy, representing the Park District. He said that the lawsuit does not question the Park District’s ability to build a new track and field, which will replace the one set to be displaced by the OPC campus.

Fioretti said in response that all the construction was tied together “at the hip.”

After Blakey questioned whether it was prudent to wait until the lawsuit’s next status hearing on Aug. 28 as the City Council would not have considered the land transfer ordinance by then, Roddy suggested that the ordinance would be introduced soon.

Fioretti countered that, while the ordinance may be introduced next month and voted on in October, “no matter what they do, the complaint won’t change.”

After the attorneys debated scheduling around the City Council’s meetings, Blakey set Oct. 24 at 9:45 a.m. as the initial discovery date.

Outside of the courtroom at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in the Loop, Protect Our Parks President Herb Caplan said Blakey’s previous allowance of stays for City Council action had only resulted in delay after delay and that the City had no answers to his lawsuit’s complaints. He said that Protect Our Parks and the other defendants would request summary judgment from the Court in October, hoping to win the case without going to trial.

Caplan also expressed some disappointment about the outcome of the hearing, as it allows construction to continue in Jackson Park, which he feared would allow the defendants to argue that work had gone too far to “turn everything back again,” and enables the defendants to avoid going on-record with “an answer subject to sanctions for false pleading from addressing all of the specific legal issues we’ve raised.”

Fioretti said the lawsuit’s merits warrant consideration “no matter what ordinance they file,” though he doubted that City Council action would change much. He said the City has been “disingenious” in trying to describe the track and field construction as a separate project from the OPC, recalling the Obama Foundation’s funding of the track and field construction and saying that Blakey “saw through it.”

Fioretti further confirmed that individuals “and, maybe, other groups, too” had committed to joining the lawsuit plaintiffs.

One of them, George Blakemore of the Near North Side, known for his colorful dress and caustic comments at Park District, City Council and Plan Committee meetings concerning the OPC, was at the hearing. He said he is a long-time member of Protect Our Parks.

Blakemore, a member of Protect Our Parks, said he opposed the use of public lands for facilities like the OPC, urged the Obama Foundation to build the OPC on private land and expressed concern about gentrification in black neighborhoods.

“They have not put anything in black and white: who’s going to build it, dealing with these jobs, contracts and services,” He dismissed as “all talk” the Obama Foundation’s published Community Commitments, which promise 35 percent of subcontracts to minority business enterprises, as well as the Lakeside Alliance consortium of black-owned Chicago firms and the larger Turner Construction company tasked with building the OPC.

“We don’t want to be hoodwinked in our community with this library,” Blakemore said. “The Park District has just gone too far giving up these parks to a private business.”

Reached after the Court hearing, the City’s attorney, Andrew Worseck declined comment, deferring to the City. Shannon Breymaier, a municipal spokeswoman, said the OPC would continue Chicago’s “tradition of locating magnificent cultural institutions in public parks,” praised its cultural and educational opportunities and called it “an economic catalyst on the South Side.”

Breymaier said,“The court today simply set a briefing schedule for the City and the Park District to address the lawsuit filed by Protect our Parks, and we look forward to aggressively defending against this lawsuit, which is without merit.”

The Park District did not return calls for comment by Herald press time.

Jackson Park Advisory Council President Louise McCurry listed the shortcomings of the old track and field alongside the features of the new one.

“Having it ready for fall school athletic events is a gift to the thousands of kids who safely use Jackson Park for South Side high school, elementary school and community athletic events,” she said.

An Obama Foundation spokesperson said the OPC “represents a historic opportunity for Chicago” as a museum and an investment in Jackson Park.

“We are confident that the City’s process to authorize the use of land in Jackson Park for the Presidential Center is appropriate and that our plan is consistent with Chicago’s rich tradition of locating world-class museums in its parks for the benefit of the parks, those museums, and the millions of people and families who enjoy both every year,” said the spokesperson.