A defiant Mayor Rahm Emanuel made no apologies Monday for his relentless and futile pursuit of the Lucas Museum or his failure to persuade the movie mogul to accept a site away from the lakefront.
“Welcome to the most important parking lot in the country. It’s not a prairie. It’s not open land. It’s a parking lot. I still think it was the right thing to do for the city of Chicago,” Emanuel said at an unrelated news conference in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood to launch the city’s summer jobs program.
“It’s a mistake to have sued. It was a mistake to have cost the city this investment of over $1 billion and more importantly, to pull away from the cultural, educational and economic enrichment. And we’re left with a parking lot in the middle of the museum campus. If you go into the future, that’s gonna be a parking lot. Not a museum and not five acres of open land. And it’s not like this is a prairie. It’s a parking lot.”
Emanuel said museums “belong on the museum campus” and George Lucas was right to accept nothing less. That’s why the Shedd Aquarium, the Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum all “advocated for this.”
“Museums don’t belong away from the museum campus. They belong as part of the museum campus,” he said.
Instead of accepting some of the responsibility himself or pinning some of it on Lucas for failing to sell the legacy project, Emanuel blamed Friends of the Parks for welcoming what would have been the largest philanthropic gift in Chicago history with a slap in the face.
“Go back to November, 2014 when they were sued. It was not the way to welcome a major investment and educational opportunity to the city of Chicago,” the mayor said.
Last week, the billionaire filmmaker of Star Wars fame pulled the plug on his legacy project, ending a two-year controversy that began when Chicago picked up the ball fumbled by Lucas’ hometown of San Francisco.
The final straw appeared to be Friends of the Parks’ audacious 11th-hour demand for 5 percent of revenues from the one museum that was not going to receive a taxpayer subsidy.
Days earlier, Emanuel’s handpicked Chicago Park District Board President Jesse Ruiz had labeled that demand “nothing short of extortion” and warned that it would be the “final nail in the coffin” of efforts to keep the coveted project in Chicago.
“No one benefits from continuing their seemingly unending litigation to protect a parking lot,” Lucas was quoted as saying in a statement issued Friday.
“The actions initiated by Friends of Parks and their recent attempts to extract concessions from the city have effectively overridden approvals received from numerous democratically elected bodies of government.”
Lucas’ decision to pull up stakes for California — either in his hometown of San Francisco or in Los Angeles on the campus of his alma mater, USC — will cost Chicago a $743 million private investment, the jobs and contracts that would have come with it and a positive, albeit bizarre-looking addition to the museum campus.
But it’s also a political loss for Emanuel.
After expending an extraordinary amount of his diminished political capital to satisfy the billionaire creator of Star Wars fame, Emanuel now has nothing to show for it.
If the mayor feels in any way embarrassed or guilty about that, he didn’t let it show on Monday.
For the better part of two years, Friends of the Parks — demonized by the mayor’s minions as “Friends of the Parking Lot” — was a mercurial and unreliable negotiating partner Emanuel tried to cut a deal with but couldn’t.
They were assisted by a federal judge who had sympathized with Friends of the Parks’ central argument and kept the group’s lawsuit alive: That a 99-year lease “effectively surrenders control” of prime lakefront property to a museum that is “not for the benefit of the public” but would “promote private and/or commercial interests.”
“For the 80 percent of the public that was for this, this is not the right choice,” the mayor said.
Emanuel rejected the notion that the outcome might have been different if only Lucas had played a leading role in selling a museum that Chicagoans never embraced or fully understood.
“I fail to see the logic. Two years ago, a lawsuit was brought immediately when it was announced. Eighty percent of the public supports it. And Springfield changed the legislation to welcome it. So, I don’t know what you could have done different. It’s not like if you got to 85 percent [support], they would have said, `You know what? We’re not gonna sue.’ It clearly sold because 80 percent of the public was for it,” he said.