women's garden

A composite image looking to the west across the Women’s Garden in Jackson Park that has been proposed as part of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) campus. This area has been proposed as the staging area for construction of the OPC and will be rebuilt with design changes after construction of the main area of the OPC campus. 

A group of plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday seeking to halt construction of the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) in Jackson Park. 

The legal action came on the same day that the city held a groundbreaking ceremony kicking off the preparatory work for the OPC. The plaintiffs include the nonprofit Protect Our Parks — which is currently petitioning the Supreme Court in another OPC-related lawsuit — as well as the Nichols Park Advisory Council and five individuals, among them the journalist and activist Jamie Kalven and University of Chicago English professor and art historian W.J.T. Mitchell. 

The 82-page complaint charges that various government agencies mishandled the reviews that made up the OPC approval process, which concluded this past February. “The common thread that runs through these diverse proceedings is they all ignored the methodology and regulatory framework, which requires the review of viable and obvious less-harmful alternatives to the Jackson Park site,” it reads in part. 

“Even though the defendant administrators were fully aware of their statutory obligations, they all refused to consider any avoidance alternatives to the Jackson Park site for the OPC, including but not limited to a site located just to the west of Washington Park.” 

POP President Herb Caplan told the Herald that the review process was in violation of the law. "The federal officials who were conducting the review absolutely refused to consider any issue of avoidance. In other words, they said they would only consider Jackson Park alone and no other site," he said. "And that's clearly in violation of the express terms of both the federal environmental and historic preservation laws."

The complaint also enumerates the alleged harms that would be caused by the OPC project, including the disappearance of 30 acres of public parkland, the clear-cutting of nearly 1,000 "mature and established" trees, alterations to nearby roadways, and the temporary demolition of the Women’s Garden. 

The named defendants include Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, as well as leading officials in the Federal Highway Administration and the National Park Service. The City of Chicago, Chicago Park District, and the Obama Foundation, the nonprofit overseeing the construction of the center, are also named in the suit. 

As POP did in its other lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that the construction of the OPC violates the public trust doctrine because the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District “improperly delegate decision-making authority over the OPC to the Obama Foundation.”

"It seems to me that the obvious resolution is just to require a reconsideration that considers alternative locations. In other words, just do the entire NEPA review all over again, but not limiting it solely to considering Jackson Park, but considering other locations," Caplan said. "I think it's so obvious that the alternative location is superior that we think that would be the finding."

The Obama Foundation did not respond to a request for comment from the Herald. In a statement to Crain’s Chicago Business, the group wrote: “Several months ago, we celebrated the conclusion of the federal reviews, a robust and transparent process that extended more than three years and involved extensive consulting party and community input. Thousands of Chicagoans participated in this journey with us, and the input we received helped strengthen the project and what we will do together in the years ahead — together we will bring this world-class institution to the South Side of Chicago.”


Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

(2) comments

Ross Petersen

There was No community input. We environmentalists have tried to set up a meeting with Obama Foundation reps for the last Four years. They never return calls. They say they don't want to dignify us with a response. We point out their center in the Park is an offense against Nature. Why not move it to the City? The foundation avoids our questions, and that isn't seeking community input.

Chicagoans identify with their open, clear and free Parks, the Lakefront. Plopping this down in Jackson Park, when urban renewal lots lie vacant all over the Southside, this is an environmental crime. Please move the OPC, and Preserve Jackson Park.


They ignored all community opinions which didn't match theirs. If Obama wants a presidential center, it would be wiser to place it on land which isn't being utilised already. There is a lot of empty, vacant land which nobody refuses to buy up. Why destroy healthy, precious parkland which offers more in terms of psychological happiness, year-round? I would like to see this PC stick to the laws and protections which were put in place for a reason!!!! Our lakefront and parks are not to built upon, for a good reason or not. They are preserves of life. Let's leave them this way.

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