The field general marshaling opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plans to build a George Lucas Museum on lakefront parkland and an Obama presidential library in Washington or Jackson Parks is leaving the battlefield.
Cassandra Francis is stepping down as president of Friends of the Parks, just as Chicago appears to be on the verge of winning the coveted Obama library prize.
Francis could not be reached to explain the timing of her decision or respond to questions about whether she had been pressured to leave. Instead, she issued an emailed statement.
“Yes, I am moving on from Friends of the Parks, but I plan to stay closely connected to the cause of protecting Chicago’s irreplaceable public parks and open spaces which make it a great city. I will continue to focus on open space, environmental and real estate issues both in Chicago and abroad,” she wrote.
“Now is a good time for me to depart and transition the organization’s leadership as it has had initial success with the federal court lawsuit opposing the lakefront park siting of the George Lucas Museum and in the period before the potential announcement of the proposed siting of the Obama Presidential Library in one of Chicago’s historic public parks.”
Last month, Emanuel appealed to Friends of the Parks to drop the threat of a lawsuit — and get on “one team, the Chicago team” — after the City Council removed a major hurdle standing in the way of an Obama presidential library here.
By a vote of 47-to-0, the Council voted to authorize the transfer of up to 21 acres of land in either Washington or Jackson Parks from the Chicago Park District to the city. Both parks were designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
The unanimous vote removed all of the local impediments but one: Friends of the Parks.
Francis had threatened a lawsuit to block what she called the “dangerous” and “unparalleled transfer of historic public parkland” for use “by a private institution,” the University of Chicago.
Minutes after the Council vote, the mayor appealed to Francis to get on board the Obama library bandwagon. He noted that the people who live around Washington and Jackson Parks “could not be clearer” about their support for the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity.
“See this as an opportunity for the city in which you’re a part of and you love. We will work with you on issues as it relates to parks and parkland. We’ve done it even before this. . . . We all collectively added 750 acres in the last four years. We can make this a win-win situation,” the mayor said on that day.
Emanuel noted that people already are gobbling up apartment buildings near Washington Park “on the expectation” that the Obama library may be located nearby. That’s “the kind of impact you want to have” in a community starved for economic benefits, the mayor said.
“Friends of the Parks — their aspirations are something I share, [but] this is something unique. You’re not setting a precedent. . . . There won’t be another presidential library for a while. So this is a once-in-a-lifetime. Let’s all be on one team: the Chicago team,” the mayor said.
On March 11, Friends of the Parks won an early round victory in the fight against Emanuel’s plan to let Lucas build his interactive museum on 17 acres of free lakefront parkland near McCormick Place.
A federal judge ruled that Friends of the Parks has legal standing to sue, that the lawsuit can proceed and that “case law suggests action by the Illinois General Assembly is required to initiate the transfer of public land held in trust for all the citizens of Illinois.”
That’s because the lakefront site “consists entirely of land recovered from the navigable waters of Lake Michigan” for which the state of Illinois is the “exclusive trustee.”
Even if Emanuel succeeds in gaining required authorization from the Illinois General Assembly, the lawsuit would continue.
That’s because neither the city nor the state has the legal authority to take action that “impairs the property as a natural resource or pristine physical environment or impairs or interferes with the use and enjoyment of the trust property,” the suit contends.
“It is a very slippery slope. If we emasculate the lakefront protection ordinance — the local Chicago embodiment of the public trust doctrine — we will have a very difficult time stopping anything further on the lakefront,” Francis told a City Hall news conference on the day the lawsuit was filed.
“This will lead to shoreline sprawl. And one of the questions I would have is, where are we gonna put Richard Branson’s museum then?”
Tom Geoghegan, an attorney representing Friends of the Parks, maintained then that additions to the Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium were legal, while construction of the Lucas museum is not, because those expansions were authorized by the General Assembly.
“Whether or not the construction of those structures — land recovered from the waters of Lake Michigan — was a violation of the public trust doctrine is a question that belongs to the past. It’s over. It’s settled. They’re there,” he said.
“What we’re concerned with is that there be no more breaches of the public trust doctrine if any occurred in the past. . . . What this suit is intended to do is to ensure that the lakefront is protected in the future. There is not that much space left. And we have to hold on and fight for what we have.”