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Obama Library Lawsuit

Former President Barack Obama speaks at a community event on the Presidential Center at the South Shore Cultural Center in Chicago in this May 3, 2017 photo. A federal judge says he'll dismiss a lawsuit brought by a parks advocacy group that is trying to stop Obama's presidential center from being built. U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey said there should be no delay in constructing the $500 million center after hearing arguments in court on Tuesday.

The big question involving the proposed Obama Presidential Center is whether it gets built in Chicago in a timely fashion, if it all. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey gave the center a welcome push forward.

He dismissed a lawsuit that sought to sidetrack the project, providing a positive legal outcome and a dose of urgency to what’s been a nagging hangup. The case “might be an important case. But it’s not a difficult case,” Blakey said after listening to lawyers from both sides make their arguments. “There should be no delay in construction.”

No delay in construction. With that declaration, Barack and Michelle Obama’s vision to build the presidential center and campus in Jackson Park, on the South Side where their roots are, marched one giant step toward happening.

The Obama Foundation can’t break ground just yet. There’s still a federal review of the project that’s ongoing, and plaintiffs in the lawsuit already said they would appeal. Should the city ultimately prevail in the legal challenge, the South Side would be that much closer to gaining a transformative political and cultural landmark that should spur significant financial investment in neighborhoods that have suffered from decades of neglect.

It’s been nearly three years since Obama came to Chicago to announce Jackson Park as the center’s site. His plans veered far from blueprints for past presidential libraries. As envisioned, there will be no presidential archives on site. Instead, records and documents will be digitized. The center’s programming will focus on South Side youths, offering internships to forge future community organizers and leaders. There will be a branch of the Chicago Public Library. Obama Foundation officials project that, in the center’s first 10 years, economic development for neighboring South Side communities would top $3 billion.

For the past year, however, the city and the Chicago Park District have been battling a lawsuit filed by an environmental group that claimed the project should be shelved because it’s being built by a private entity, the Obama Foundation, on public parkland. That would be a violation of Chicago Park District code and state law, charged the group, Protect Our Parks.

At the core of the case, Blakey said, was the struggle between park preservation and a city’s need to, at times, encroach on parkland for the public good. Blakey ruled that it’s up to lawmakers, and not the courts, to decide what encroachments on parkland are justified. The Obama center is a public benefit, a city attorney argued, and the judge agreed.

We’re glad Blakey ruled swiftly because the Obamas have options if they decided Chicago couldn’t accommodate their plans.

Beyond any appeal of this case, anticipated next steps include hashing out a so-called community benefits agreement. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has endorsed the idea of this agreement, which would lock in the project’s benefits to surrounding neighborhoods through a contract. South Siders want the CBA to prevent displacement of longtime residents, impose a property tax freeze, and ensure job generation and construction of affordable housing. Obama has resisted the CBA, so it’s up to Lightfoot to resolve the impasse.

On Tuesday Lightfoot applauded the judge’s ruling, adding that she wants to ensure the Obama center’s benefits “can be shared by all.”

That should be a priority. So should moving ahead with the presidential center. The South Side, and the rest of Chicago, is waiting.

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