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Court hearing commences on fate of Obama Presidential Centre

Former US President, Barak Obama
Ex-President Barak Obama
Former US President, Barak Obama

Chicago, June 11, 2019

A federal judge will hear final arguments on Tuesday in a lawsuit that could determine the fate of the Obama Presidential Centre in Chicago.

The lawsuit brought by environmentalists against the city is challenging the sprawling campus whether it can be built in a public park.

“I’m all in favour of this investment on the South Side,’’ said Herbert Caplan, president of Protect Our Parks, the group that filed the lawsuit seeking to stop the centre from being located in Jackson Park.

“I’ve argued that the South Side would be better served if the OPC were built in another community like Woodlawn and South Shore.’’

Caplan’s group argues in its lawsuit that the city doesn’t have authority to offer public parkland to a private foundation for the 500-million-dollar project.

The city has asked the judge to throw the lawsuit out, arguing that while the Obama Foundation will pay to construct the buildings and improve the landscaping, the campus will be owned by the city and will remain public property.

The legal matter is reminiscent of the court battle that scuttled the 400-million-dollar museum proposed elsewhere on the lakefront by “Star Wars’’ creator George Lucas.

In that case, a different parks advocacy group sued, but Lucas and his team didn’t wait for a judgment and decided to move the Museum of Narrative Art to Los Angeles.

From the moment former U.S. president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama announced their presidential centre plans, they’ve said the project would transform the South Side by attracting a steady stream of tourists.

Provide jobs and give new investors incentive to build housing, retail businesses and services to a community marred by poverty, joblessness and violence.

Unlike other presidential libraries that are mainly research facilities housing archives and records, the proposed Obama centre would have a public library branch, an athletics centre, a museum, meeting rooms and a number of outdoor gathering spaces, including a sledding hill.

The campus honouring the first African American president would take up 7.8 hectares of the 200-hectare Jackson Park and is expected to create indirectly about 2,500 permanent jobs.

But while the development had the support of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and won two affirmative votes by the City Council, it has also revealed deep and sensitive community divisions along racial and class lines.

The main backers of the lawsuit are two white residents: Caplan, a North Side resident, and Charlotte Adelman, who lives in the north suburbs.

They want the centre to be placed on privately owned vacant property farther south-west in a more desolate area.

Many Chicagoans who live closer to the proposed Jackson Park site, however, have other worries: that it will drive up property values, making the area less affordable, and that nearby residents will be passed over for the higher-paying jobs the Obama centre will generate.

Earlier, hundreds of people gathered at Hyde Park Academy to renew the call for the project to come with a so-called community benefits agreement:

An ordinance that would guarantee local benefits like a property tax freeze and a community trust fund that would pay for home repairs and rental assistance programmes.

“We were proud that President Obama chose the South Side for his presidential centre,’’ Devondrick Jeffers of Southside Together Organising for Power, or STOP, told the gathering.

But he said those pushing for a community benefits agreement have been asking important questions from the beginning, like what will be the effect on rents and property, and will there be displacement?

The Obama Foundation is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit instead it targets the city and Park District.

Construction on the centre has been delayed by both the lawsuit and a federal review process that is months behind schedule.

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