By Lolly Bowean
When Charlotte Adelman was a student at the University of Chicago, the nearby parks became a refuge for her, a sprawling expanse of green where she could escape the concrete urban landscape.
It was then, many decades ago, that Adelman began her journey to becoming a fighter for environmental justice. Along the way, she has fought to preserve open spaces, ban pesticides in Wilmette and co-authored a book, Prairie Directory of North America.
Now, Adelman, 81, has set her sights on her biggest target yet — to block the Obama Presidential Center from being built in
Adelman, along with her fellow advocates Maria Valencia, Jeremiah Jurevis and the advocacy group Protect Our Parks, have filed suit against the presidential centre. They contend that the city and Park District do not have the authority to make public parkland available for the project. Jackson Park, they say, must remain untouched.
“I’ve devoted years of my life to the environment. It’s very important to me, it’s not just an interest, but the motivation of my life,” she said. “Chicago, when it was established, had so much open prairie land. Much of that is gone. Our founders … they carved out space. I assume they thought there would be buildings, but I doubt they ever thought the city of Chicago would cover everything with buildings for miles.
“Our parks are the last remnants of open space.”
In filing their lawsuit, Adelman and her fellow plaintiffs have joined a long list of groups that have tried to influence the shape and scope of the project. Many activists, for example, pushed for the centre to be built in an economically struggling area of the South Side, and some are holding out for guarantees that the half-billion-dollar project won’t disrupt the demographic makeup of the community or displace residents.
Others have raised questions about who will get the jobs and largest contracts. In the months after the project was proposed, there were protests and demonstrations and heated public meetings revealing divisions within the community.
But Adelman and Protect Our Parks have emerged as perhaps the most strident opponents of the project and the only group that is taking legal action to block it altogether.
The lawsuit has sparked difficult conversations within the community as even residents who have been critical of the centre wonder if the legal action might actually kill a project that has been touted as transformative for the economically struggling South Side.
For much of the public protests surrounding the center, Adelman and her fellow plaintiffs kept a relatively low profile. Not anymore. By taking the matter to court, Adelman and Protect Our Parks have stirred memories of litigation that led George Lucas to drop his plans for a Lucas Museum along Chicago’s lakefront.
“I think the Obama Foundation and the city should take this lawsuit seriously,” said Juanita Irizarry, the executive director of Friends of the Parks, a group that has raised similar environmental concerns but chose not to take court action. “Often we’ve seen the city communicate to the public who try to bring up questions that the struggle is over. There are still various levels of approvals that have to be made. We see this lawsuit as a valuable tool.”
For Margaret Schmid, an activist with Jackson Park Watch, the lawsuit provides a chance to push for an alternate location for the presidential centre.
“We are in favour of having the Obama Presidential Center on the South Side, but it’s a matter of location,” she said. “If they had chosen someplace else, construction would have started already. There are consequences to their choice.”
A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for later this month.
This court battle comes just as the second federal review meeting has been delayed for a second time this summer, and the foundation announced that groundbreaking would be pushed into next year.
The foundation isn’t a defendant in the lawsuit. Instead the suit targets the city and park district saying that the presidential centre isn’t the same as a presidential library and should not be granted public land. But even if the project was designed to house Obama’s archives, this collection still wouldn’t want it situated in a park.
“While the lawsuit is premature because the agreements that will govern the terms of the Obama Presidential Center have not yet been finalised, we are confident that the lawsuit is without merit,” said Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, in a written statement. “The Obama Presidential Center will be a valuable resource for all members of the public and will enhance the public’s enjoyment of Jackson Park.”
Officials with the foundation would not comment on the lawsuit, but said they were following the court action and would cooperate with the city as needed.
Still, for Adelman and her network of supporters, the lawsuit is about fighting to preserve valuable park space in a city that is becoming home to more and more skyscrapers and buildings, she said. It’s also to protect the homes of birds, butterflies, trees, plants and wildlife that too often get overlooked, she said.
“I’m opposed to damaging what little open space we have,” she said. “Jackson Park is one of the big bird watching centres — it’s right in the flight path of migratory birds. These birds are beautiful, exquisite, jaw-dropping works of art. Why put a gigantic tower into a migratory bird pathway? It seems to me there is no way to mitigate that.”
The legal action came after Adelman, who is a retired attorney, had a conversation with Herbert Caplan about the South Side project. Both Adelman and Caplan are North Siders — he lives in Lakeview and she lives in Wilmette. But they are both University of Chicago graduates who got to know Jackson Park while living in the Hyde Park community.
At first, the two, along with a handful of other environmentally conscious friends, watched the drama around the presidential centreunfold from a distance. Then, about a year ago, they decided they needed to get involved, Caplan said.
“We were reading about the Obama centre and something about it just violated all our principles,” he said. “It takes a historic and dedicated park and turns it over to a private entity. We waited to see if anyone was going to do anything about it.”
Jackson Park was designed more than a century ago by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as a tranquil retreat from urban life, part of a network of parks on the South Side that includes the Midway Plaisance and Washington Park.
The other two plaintiffs in the lawsuit declined to comment. But Caplan said his group saw how activists tried to negotiate, many times unsuccessfully. They decided to pool their resources and hire an attorney.
“There was so much talk back and forth, but talk would not lead to a conclusion,” he said. “The only way to address the complaints people have raised … is to have it solved in court with an impartial judge.”
Caplan is the president of Protect Our Parks, which was formed in 2007 to challenge the park district when the Latin School of Chicago wanted to transform a grass field into a soccer field. The group filed a lawsuit that was settled out of court. Since then, Caplan has weighed in on developments by penning editorials and sending letters exerting influence. Like Adelman, Caplan, 87, is an attorney and avid environmentalist.
“The only objections we got were from people who thought that a lawsuit is disrespectful to the former president,” Caplan said. “We believe in an Obama centre, but not on park property.” — Chicago Tribune/TNS
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