- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2018

President Obama always had the support of the environmental movement — until he tried to construct his lavish presidential center on sensitive parkland in Chicago’s South Side.

Now, local community activists have filed a lawsuit demanding answers about the Barack Obama Presidential Center’s “impact on the environment and character of historic Jackson Park.”

“Like the public generally, we find the Obama Foundation and City of Chicago not forthcoming,” Gabriel Piemonte and Janet Geovanis, two members of the Coalition to Save Jackson Park, wrote Wednesday in a Hyde Park Herald letter to the editor. “This is a massive development involving public land, and we have been kept in the dark about too many details.”

The coalition, which filed the Freedom of Information Act complaint on Jan. 16, accused the “wealthy Obama Foundation and the city officials it works with” of refusing “to engage with citizens whose housing, schools, and parks will be forever altered” by the library’s construction.

The group’s FOIA request, filed Nov. 3, sought information on a host of environmental impact issues, including “potential flooding and run-off,” “avian-migration and nesting issues,” and “impact on local microclimate and temperatures in Jackson Park.”

The complaint, first reported by Crain’s Chicago Business journal, details what the activists say is the city’s months-long effort to stonewall documents pertaining to the planning, development and environmental impact of the presidential center.

The Chicago Park District said the FOIA request was a “lengthy request and required extensive time and consultation.”

“The Chicago Park District provided responsive documents, but asked that the request for emails be narrowed because the original request was unduly burdensome as written,” a spokesperson for the park district told Crain’s. “The Chicago Park District attempted to work with the requester to help narrow the email search, but unfortunately the requester chose to file a lawsuit instead.”

According to the lawsuit, the Chicago Park District initially said documents pertaining to the FOIA request would be ready on Nov. 22.

After the city failed to produce any records on that date, the lawsuit continues, the coalition contacted various governmental agencies on Dec. 1, Dec. 4, Dec. 7, Dec. 19 and Dec. 21. They received no response.

The coalition sent a letter on Jan. 4 threatening to file a lawsuit if the document request was not fulfilled by Jan. 11.

On Jan. 11, the Chicago Park District turned over seven documents pursuant to the coalition’s FOIA request. No emails or electronic communications were included in the production.

The Coalition to Save Jackson Park went ahead with its lawsuit, alleging the “long-overdue, email-free, seven-document production” is an “incomplete production of public records.”

As currently planned, the Obama Presidential Center will take up nearly 20 acres in Jackson Park. The historic public park was originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also designed New York City’s famed Central Park.

The University of Chicago submitted the winning bid to host the center, beating out Columbia University in New York City and the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. Activists have questioned how a private entity, the University of Chicago, was able to include public parkland in its bid for the library.

Charles Birnbaum, president of The Cultural Landscape Foundation, which opposes the center’s construction on Jackson Park, said there should be more “transparency to the decision-making process that resulted in the confiscation of parkland for the Obama Presidential Center.”

The center originally was supposed to be Mr. Obama’s official presidential library, complete with the 44th president’s records and administered by the National Archives. Instead, it will be a private facility that could come with a basketball court, yoga studio and test kitchen.

The Obama Foundation estimated the center will have a total economic impact of $3.1 billion in its first 10 years, supporting 5,000 new jobs during construction and 2,500 permanent jobs once the facility is open.

But community activists say the center could do a lot more for the local community if it were more centrally located. Mr. Obama instead opted to put the center in the lavish Jackson Park location overlooking Lake Michigan.

The project also will cost taxpayers an estimated $100 million in renovations to the surrounding area.

More than 100 professors at the University of Chicago signed a public letter this month denouncing the “socially regressive” plans for the library.

Charles Lipson, a political scientist at the University of Chicago who signed the letter, expressed skepticism about how the plans for the center were approved so quickly in notoriously hard-to-build Chicago.

“This is Chicago,” he said. “You gotta know a guy who knows a guy.”

• Bradford Richardson can be reached at brichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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