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Emanuel: Chicago remains ‘priority’ for Lucas, but other cities have ‘come calling’

Chicago remains a “priority” for George Lucas, but other cities have “come calling,” now that a federal judge has kept alive a lawsuit challenging 17 acres of lakefront land near Soldier Field as the site for the movie mogul’s $400 million museum, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday.

Emanuel said he and his top aides have had “a lot of conversations” with Lucas and his wife, Chicago businesswoman Mellody Hobson, in the two weeks since U.S. District Judge John Darrah sided with the advocacy group, Friends of the Park, and rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the case.

The mayor hedged when asked whether the Star Wars creator was open to a site change.

“What I do know is that Chicago is a priority for them. But that doesn’t mean other cities haven’t come calling,” the mayor said.

Asked again whether Lucas and Hobson were open to changing sites, Emanuel said he was “not going to speak for” the power couple.

The mayor bobbed and weaved when asked whether he would forge ahead in court, pursue a site change or do both simultaneously.

“What I’m going to do is work tirelessly to keep it in Chicago,” he said.

“San Francisco coughed up the ball. We grabbed it . . . There’s a tremendous educational, cultural and economic gain for the city . . . I’m glad it’s not in Los Angeles. I’m glad it’s in Chicago. I’m going to keep working on trying to keep it here. But as you know, other cities are very interested.”

In an apparent move to show that the city isn’t giving up on the legal front, lawyers for the city and the Chicago Park District asked Darrah on Tuesday to decide by March 16 whether he was willing to lift his previous order and allow work at the site.

“The resulting delay and uncertainty of this litigation now puts the entire project at risk because the [Lucas Museum] may choose to leave Chicago and relocate to another city,” city lawyers wrote in a court filing.

Those lawyers wrote that the dispute over the museum is, at its heart, a question over who decides what is in the public interest: the Illinois General Assembly or a federal court. Lawmakers have passed legislation designed to eliminate the lawsuit’s central argument, allowing construction on formerly submerged land that was once part of Lake Michigan.

“The site can hardly be characterized as a natural wonder of the State of Illinois,” city lawyers wrote. “Nor is it home to any historic buildings. Rather, the site is currently occupied by an asphalt parking lot. It is hard to imagine how the loss of a parking lot could ever be irreparable injury, and it certainly would not be so here.”

In his ruling earlier this month, Darrah lent new credibility to park activists’ claims that a 99-year lease “effectively surrenders control” of prime lakefront property to the museum, and that the museum “is not for the benefit of the public,” but would “promote private and/or commercial interests.”

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez served on the Emanuel-appointed site-selection committee that chose the lakefront location. Ramirez argued Tuesday that the court challenge places Chicago in serious jeopardy of losing the museum that it had snatched away from Lucas’ hometown of San Francisco.

“People should be asking Friends of the Parks, `Do you know what you’re doing here?’ How is Friends of the Parks going to feel if these guys leave the city?” Ramirez asked.

“This is not some guy wanting to build a condo or a roller coaster. This is Daniel Burnham. This is `no small plans.’ George Lucas is giving the city a great gift to boost the local tourism economy. There would be nothing like it in the world. We wrestled this away from San Francisco. Now, we’re willing to risk letting it go . . . That would be horrible for Chicago.”

City Treasurer Kurt Summers co-chaired the site-selection committee that started with 57 sites, narrowed the list to five finalists and settled on the parking lots near Soldier Field after hearing Lucas articulate his must-haves for the legacy project.

“George Lucas wanted a site that was accessible to everyone, part of the city landscape and its connection to cultural institutions. Being on the water was a priority and still is. To the extent those things are still the case, it limits the number of options we have,” said Summers, who is positioning himself to run for mayor in 2019.

“I am confident we would not have won the bid had we not proposed this site.”

Friends of the Park has repeatedly suggested the old Michael Reese Hospital site that former Mayor Richard M. Daley purchased for $91 million to house an Olympic Village before Chicago’s first-round flameout in the 2016 Olympic sweepstakes.

But Summers, who served as chief of staff to Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid committee, said, “The biggest challenge with that land is that it costs money. The city would need to be repaid for the cost of acquiring that land.”

Despite the thinly-veiled warnings from the mayor and Ramirez, Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry said the group has every intention of pursuing the lawsuit.

“We believe it would certainly be a tragedy to lose the museum, the jobs and the economic development that come with it. But we also consider it a tragedy to lose our lakefront. And we do believe there are other viable sites,” Irizarry said Tuesday.

If Emanuel and Lucas refuse to consider alternative sites, Irizarry said she is confident the city will lose what could be a protracted and expensive legal battle. If that costs Chicago the coveted project, so be it, she said.

“The mayor should feel guilty that he can’t exert the type of leadership that would have brought this project to fruition on a legal site,” she said.