CHICAGO — Construction cones are already blocking off roads in Jackson Park, a historic green space on this city’s South Side overlooking Lake Michigan.
Five years ago, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama chose the idyllic location, near the couple’s old home in the nearby Hyde Park neighborhood, as the future site of the Obama Presidential Center — a campus that will house a museum, public library branch, children’s center and other gathering spaces for a $700 million price tag. Much of the Jackson Park community has embraced the project after some initial pushback, and construction crews are prepared to start preliminary work as soon as August 15, when the foundation takes possession of a portion of the park from the city.
But it’s not clear that timeline will unfold as planned. Last week, local activists took another step forward in their years-long fight against the project, hoping to stop construction and force a change in location.
This past spring, a small group working under the name Protect Our Parks sued the Obama Foundation, which oversees the fundraising for and building of the center, among other defendants. The group then followed up with a recent motion calling for a halt to construction, which it said could cause “irreparable harm” to the park by tearing up roads, cutting down trees and diverting traffic into Hyde Park. Protect Our Parks — whose members include progressives, park-preservationists, government do-gooders, a libertarian and a member of the NAACP — argues the roads within Jackson Park are integral to the open-space design, which was laid out nearly 140 years ago by the famed Frederick Law Olmsted and hosted the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Legal observers say the case is substantive, but that the failure of an earlier case filed by Protect Our Parks could hurt the group’s chances. Still, the battle has created tension within the community and the city at large. Supporters of the Jackson Park location accuse the activists of trying to thwart a project meant to honor America’s first Black president. The activists call it a David and Goliath story, with a small citizen group challenging a powerful alliance among the city, the federal government and the Obamas, who are beloved here.
“It’s been hard opposing Barack Obama,” says Brenda Nelms, a local activist who opposes the Jackson Park location. “It’s caused all kinds of name calling.”
Those who support putting the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park say there’s something else going on, too. They see the chosen site — wedged between Chicago’s mostly white North Side and predominantly Black South Side — as a way to break down the city’s firmest racial and socioeconomic dividing line, replacing old trees and fencing with an open, walkable campus.
“Having grown up on the South Side while seeing historic investment on the North Side and disinvestment on the South Side, we have an opportunity to weave the city together both physically and symbolically,” says Valerie Jarrett, who was Obama’s senior adviser in the White House and now is president of the Obama Foundation.
David Axelrod, another former Obama adviser, agrees: “Obama himself was a bridge between communities, and this presidential center will be as well.”
Some supporters of the Jackson Park site, whose surrounding neighborhoods have a large Black population, point out that Protect Our Parks’ members are mostly white and don’t all live in the neighborhood. “When you have communities of color, there are always outsiders who think they know what’s best for the neighborhood,” says City Council member Leslie Hairston, whose ward encompasses the future Obama Presidential Center. “And this is an example of that at its worst.”
The Protect Our Parks activists say they are not trying to sow division but are only trying to preserve the park. “Our goal is simple: ensuring everyone has access to a healthy environment and ensuring that development projects no longer benefit only a powerful few but are designed to empower the collective,” the group said in a statement to POLITICO.
As the legal fight continues to play out ahead of a scheduled groundbreaking this fall, it is shining a spotlight on Obama’s surprisingly complicated legacy in Chicago — and on the even more complicated political and community dynamics in an overwhelmingly liberal, yet deeply divided city.
“It really shows the differences between white and Black perspectives in Chicago,” says Marilyn Katz, a longtime Democratic activist and friend of Obama‘s who supports the new center, and who is white. “Most in the Black community have come to the conclusion that every other great, great Chicago museum is on the lakefront — the Field Museum, the Planetarium, the Shedd, and Museum of Science and Industry.” To locate the center near a freeway, as the activists are proposing, “and not in that constellation of stars would diminish his presidency,” she says. “It lowers the status of the country’s first Black president.”
Brenda Sheriff, a businesswoman who is active in the NAACP South Side Chicago Chapter and is one of two Black plaintiffs in the Protect Our Parks legal motion, voted for Obama in every election he ran in — even the early congressional primary he lost. But that doesn’t mean she wants his center in Jackson Park, where she thinks it will snarl traffic, or even necessarily in Chicago. “He was a grown man when he moved here, and that doesn’t constitute ‘hometown’ to me,” she says.
Chicago City Council member Jeanette Taylor, whose ward includes the nearby Woodlawn neighborhood, which touches Jackson Park, is sensitive to Protect Our Parks’ concerns. For years, Taylor and a different community group protested to make sure low-income residents in the area wouldn’t be displaced by the new center. She spoke from experience: When she and her family lived in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood, they were forced to move when the Harold Washington Library was built, and rents went up.
Last year, the coalition reached a community benefits agreement with the city that offers affordable housing protections in Woodlawn. According to Jarrett, polling by the Obama Foundation now shows broad support within the community and the city for the Jackson Park location. Taylor herself says she has come to fully support the Jackson Park project; those who oppose it, she now argues, don’t understand the local needs.
“They [Protect Our Parks] have their points, but their points don’t work for this community. We need investment,” Taylor says of Woodlawn. The area has some 4,000 vacant lots, and she’s hopeful the center will help attract businesses to help rejuvenate those blighted spots.
The Protect Our Parks plaintiffs’ complaints go back to a 2018 lawsuit challenging the transfer of city park land to the Obama Foundation. After that suit was dismissed in 2019, the group appealed to then-Appellate Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett on the Seventh Circuit, who said the plaintiffs lacked standing because they couldn’t show personal harm. The plaintiffs in turn appealed that decision and tried to get the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, but the court declined in April.
In its new lawsuit, filed in April in the Northern District of Illinois, the activists hope to show that the foundation failed to do full federal reviews of alternative sites. While they wait to present their case, Protect Our Parks wants the U.S. Department of Transportation to put a stop to any work in the park. Secretary Pete Buttigieg is named as a defendant in the group’s motion for a preliminary injunction; Protect Our Parks says the federal Transportation Act gives Buttigieg the authority to stop construction. (Buttigieg’s office did not return a request for comment.) On Friday, the group submitted a brief asking a federal judge to halt the construction scheduled for August 15, when the Obama Foundation is set to start digging up roads, before it begins to tear out trees on September 1.
Protect Our Parks members says their concerns center on preserving the park’s historic design and its trees, and preventing a traffic nightmare in Hyde Park, where cars from Cornell Drive, a main thoroughfare, will be diverted under the construction plans. Instead of Jackson Park, Protect Our Parks wants the center moved to an area adjacent to Washington Park — farther from the lake, closer to expressways and near vacant blocks the activists believe could benefit from the economic activity that would come with the center. (When Chicago made its pitch for the 2016 Olympics, Washington Park was the centerpiece location.)
A spokeswoman for the Obama Foundation says there are 350 trees that are set to be removed from the site, “many of them currently dead, diseased or in poor overall health.” The foundation also says it will plant more trees than are currently on site, and that moving Cornell Drive and any other roads out of the park will increase green space.
Axelrod, who lives on the edge of the park and enjoys walking his dog there, says, “The thing that strikes me is how little used it is. I think this will bring more people to the park, and it will enhance it.”
Some activists are more focused on the process by which the Obamas chose Jackson Park. Jamie Kalvan, an activist-journalist and another of the plaintiffs, wrote a recent Chicago Tribune op-ed that the site selection was approved “through procedural sleights of hand.” Kalvan — a familiar name in Chicago for his work helping to reveal the coverup of the police shooting of Black teenager Laquan McDonald — argues that federal agencies didn’t thoroughly assess alternative sites.
“It’s not a frivolous lawsuit,” says Marquette Law School professor Joseph Kearney, who has followed the case and written about it along with Columbia Law School professor Thomas Merrill, who participated in a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the city in the first legal challenge to the Obama center. This time, Merrill says, “If it didn’t have all the ramifications involved, about it being the first African American president and Chicago wanting to honor him, I would think a court might say this is what the federal environmental statutes were meant to do — to examine the pluses and minuses of the two different possible locations [Jackson and Washington parks] on a comprehensive basis. That wasn’t done in this case.”
The foundation says the analysis has been exhaustive and that several government entities have given a thumbs-up to the project, including the City of Chicago and its Department of Transportation, Park District, Department of Planning and Development and City Council; the National Park Service; the Federal Highway Administration; and the Seventh Circuit Court of Illinois, which dismissed the previous case against the center.
Residents also have come to support the Obama Presidential Center over the course of numerous public hearings about it, Jarrett says, adding that the center has been assessed as a $3.1 billion economic engine that the foundation says will increase tourism and create an estimated 5,000 jobs.
As they’ve waged their fight, opponents of the Jackson Park location say they have felt ostracized. Nelms, who helped start Jackson Park Watch, a local nonprofit that rejects development in the park, and who is white, says opponents of the plan have been “accused of being racist.” She says her concerns are simply about keeping the park — “a wonderfully natural place” — intact.
“If there were no other spaces on the South Side, then maybe the park would make sense, but that’s not true,” she says, adding that she thinks there are other Chicagoans who agree but aren’t willing to say so. “The Obama bubble inhibits people from speaking out.”
Richard Epstein, the lead attorney for Protect Our Parks and an expert on public trust issues, echoed this argument. “One of the things you find out when you litigate against the Obamas, is it’s difficult to get people to come out publicly,” he says. “Many environmental organizations having to do with open lands and friends of the park and so forth — they are studiously quiet. They will not take a position on litigation. They won’t write an amicus brief. They won’t publish any letters.”
Jarrett and supporters say it’s not a matter of residents fearing the Obamas — it’s that support for the lawsuit just isn’t there. “People aren’t afraid,” she says. “Early in the process we held constructive sessions with residents. We listened and made improvements. That is why there is overwhelming support for the project now.” Among supporters is a coalition of 16 Chicago museums and cultural institutions that filed an amicus brief last month asking the court to deny the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction against the center.
Both sides are waiting on U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey, an Obama appointee, to rule in the coming weeks on Protect Our Parks’ motion for an injunction that could put a hold on the project. But either party could appeal the court’s decision, potentially prolonging the fight and pushing back the project’s start date.
Obama Foundation supporters, for their part, are confident about their case. Jarrett, who previously worked as Chicago’s commissioner of planning and development, says the legal pushback is to be expected in any big urban development project. “You can’t let that tiny opposition get in the way,” she says. “There are people who are resistant to change — even when change is for the better.”