WOODLAWN — Lawyers for activist group Protect Our Parks and the city sparred during a federal court hearing Thursday, with each side rehashing their main points in the years-long legal fight around the Obama Presidential Center.
Protect Our Parks seeks to stop the center’s construction in Jackson Park. The group argues the center is not a valid use for public park land, reinforcing their main contention since filing a lawsuit in 2018.
U.S. District Court Judge John Robert Blakey dismissed the case last June, saying the center would provide a “multitude of benefits to the public” that justify the use of public land. Protect Our Parks appealed this ruling to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The city approved a $10, 99-year deal with Obama Foundation in October 2018. University of Chicago Law School professor Richard Epstein, who is representing Protect Our Parks argued that the city’s use agreement with the Obama Foundation should be treated as though it was an “outright transfer” of Jackson Park land.
City officials have claimed that the center only would use 3 percent of the park. But that doesn’t consider the lagoon, golf course and other aspects that aren’t freely accessible to all, Epstein said in court.
“If you’re talking about the actual intensity of use with respect to the park, what you’re doing in this particular case is essentially taking away probably 90 to 95 percent of the value,” Epstein said. “This is a massive transfer in terms of total value.”
The city argues it is taking park land for park-related purposes and is allowed under the state’s Museum Act to do so.
The land, now used “simply as a park with grass and trees,” would only improve with the “cultural and recreational benefits” of a museum, said Benna Ruth Solomon, lead counsel for the city.
“A park that has lost a tiny bit of its historic character is still a park,” Solomon said.
Other private museums, like the DuSable Museum of African American History in Washington Park and the Museum Campus in Grant Park, are located on public land.
The Obama Foundation’s core mission is to build and operate the presidential center in benefit to the public, so the foundation’s private benefit is “merely incidental,” she said.
Judge Amy Barrett presided over a panel including Judge Michael Brennan and Judge Daniel Manion for Thursday’s hearing, which was broadcast live on YouTube.
A timeline for a ruling was not given.
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