Chicago – In a surprising move, a federal judge ruled Tuesday that the city of Chicago was within its authority when it approved the Obama Foundation’s plan to construct the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park.
After listening to nearly an hour of arguments on both sides, US Judge John Robert Blakey said the construction to the sprawling Obama center campus can begin and dismissed the lawsuit filed by environmentalists that aimed to halt it.
Technically, the foundation still has to finish a federal review process before it can break ground on the 500-million-dollar development. But Tuesday’s decision removed one major hurdle.
"The facts are clear in this case and the law is more settled than the parties are suggesting," Blakey said from the bench.
"Everyone’s had their day in court. … There’s been no rush to judgment," he said before declaring there should be "no delay in construction. This case is dismissed."
Blakey said he would issue a more detailed, written decision later Tuesday afternoon.
The decision culminates a yearlong court battle between a group of environmentalists and the city of Chicago over where the Obama Presidential Center should be built.
The leaders of Protect Our Parks want the center relocated from the public lakefront park to a privately owned lot further southwest. In court the group’s attorney, Mark Roth, told the judge that the city essentially gave the 19.3-acre sliver of Jackson Park to the Obama Foundation, which violated the public trust doctrine.
Roth argued that the city didn’t evaluate whether other properties were a better it and allowed the foundation to dictate where it would build.
But Michael Scodro, who represented the city, pushed against that argument. He said essentially the public trust doctrine the environmentalists were leaning on was being wrongly interpreted. He went on to say that the foundation submitted an application to build in Jackson Park, city officials evaluated it and approved.
"The museum itself is the public benefit," he said.
"The record is swelling with evidence of the benefits, not only of this particular museum, but also to its location in a park generally and to this particular location," he said.
The lawsuit was reminiscent of the court case that was filed by another environmental group and that killed the 400-million-dollar museum proposed by "Star Wars" creator George Lucas. In that case, Lucas and his team didn’t wait for a judgment and decided to move the Museum of Narrative Art to Los Angeles.
On Tuesday morning, dozens of residents and city officials piled into Blakey’s courtroom to hear the closing arguments. At one point, Blakey paused to direct the overflowing crowd to sit in the jury box and in the chairs normally reserved for attorneys.
It wasn’t a public hearing, but residents like Erin Adams, who founded South Side Neighbors for Hope, attended because they wanted to lend their presence and listen to the arguments for themselves.
As Blakey began to discuss his thinking, there was a gasp from the crowd. And after the hearing concluded, Adams shouted with joy in the hallway.
"This is a huge win for the South Side. We hope there isn’t a long appeal process," said Adams, who lives in South Shore. "We didn’t expect a ruling today. But his wording was very strong. He took both sides into consideration."
But for Herbert Caplan, one of the main backers of the lawsuit, the decision was a painful blow. He said his organization will appeal and continue to fight to preserve Jackson Park to remain as it is.
"I’m shocked. I really thought he was not going to rule today and review everything in the record," he said.