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Lucas urged to build museum on South Works site

An aerial view of U.S. Steel's old South Works site, near 85th Street and South Shore Drive. | Sun-Times file photo

Movie mogul George Lucas was urged Monday to build his interactive museum on the site of the old U.S. Steel South Works plant after a split between the steel giant and a prominent Chicago developer killed plans for a “new city” on the long-vacant site.

“If you did a hovercraft like an amusement park ride shaped like the Millennium Falcon, it would be amazing. And you wouldn’t have to worry about ticking anybody off,” said Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th), whose ward includes the site.

“It’s a 25-minute boat ride from downtown. Look at Versailles in France. That’s 20 miles outside Paris. People travel there from all over the world. The same thing would happen here. It’s an amazing piece of property just 10 miles from downtown. Wouldn’t it be awesome if they could put the Lucas Museum on the northeast tip of that property?”

Developer Dan McCaffery said he went “hell-bent for leather” in a failed attempt to lure the Obama presidential library to the South Works site and, “anything available for [the library] is available” to the Lucas museum.

Chicago is in danger of losing the $400 million museum now that a federal judge kept alive a lawsuit filed by Friends of the Parks challenging Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s giveaway of 17 acres of lakefront property near Soldier Field.

“With the Obama library, we got a chance to put on our dancing shoes and dance. We haven’t had that same opportunity with Lucas. It’s clear the Lucas Museum has their eyes on one site,” McCaffery said Monday.

Referring to the South Works site, McCaffery said, “It’s the best site in town. There are no sites that can compete with it. Imagine if they put the Obama library and the Lucas museum on the same site. What would that do for the South Side of Chicago? Our problems with crime and people not having economic opportunity” would fade away.

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art organization declined to comment.

As for McCaffery’s ambitious plan to build as many as 13,000 homes and 17.5 million square feet of commercial space on the 600 acre site, he said it’s dead now that U.S. Steel has pulled the plug on the partnership.

“I don’t want to be calling people names, and I certainly wouldn’t call my partner names. U.S. Steel has been a great partner. But when we signed our agreement to go ahead together, their shares were trading at about a $160. They’re now at $7 a share,” McCaffery said.

“They’re in the steel business. Any available excess cash, they owe it to their shareholders to be investing first in the steel business. We split, but shook hands.”

U.S. Steel spokeswoman Sarah Cassella said company officials “do not comment on specific business relationships.”

“We are working with affected stakeholders to develop an appropriate path forward for the South Works property,” Cassella wrote in an emailed statement.

<small><strong> A rendering of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art along the lakefront.</strong></small>
A rendering of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art along the lakefront.

Sadlowski-Garza said another U.S. Steel spokesman, Bill Hinckley, told her last week the steel giant is “going back to the drawing board after putting a lot of money” into the project known as Lakeside development only to have “nothing happen.”

Hinckley couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.

The alderman accused McCaffery of aiming a bit too high with his plan to build high-rises and $500,000 homes with boat slips.

“Not many people in the Bush neighborhood own boats. It’s not something many people can afford. It’s very low income. It looks like somebody dropped a bomb there. Total disinvestment. You can’t buy a gallon of milk. The CTA cut the bus route. The Mariano’s never came,” she said.

“We need a developer who understands the history of the Southeast Side. Some families have been here for over 100 years. We don’t want total gentrification where families who have been here for three or four generations are going to be pushed out.”

McCaffery argued that he had no choice but to “aim high” after former Mayor Richard M. Daley authorized a $98 million tax increment financing subsidy to make way for the project and after the city extended South Lake Shore Drive to pave the way for the $4 billion Lakeside development.

“That site has no sewers, electricity, water or roads. What does that all spell out to you? Infrastructure. If you’re going to get TIF funds issued to pay for that infrastructure, you have to put in enough development at one time to have those $98 million in bonds serviced,” he said.

“How do you aim low? You can’t put in two bungalows and a gas station.”

Planning and Development Department spokesman Peter Strazzabosco said there was a redevelopment agreement for an initial phase of the massive project. “The potential assistance was contingent on a project moving forward. No funds were ever provided,” he said.

Now that McCaffery and U.S. Steel have ended their partnership, Sadlowski-Garza said she’s worried about what, if anything, will happen to the site that has sat stubbornly vacant for two decades.

“I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve watched that land that once provided thousands of jobs turn into nothing. It’s sad to me. People gave their blood, sweat and tears — and sometimes their lives — on that land. My father worked there. My father-in-law and my husband worked there,” the alderman said.

“I’m worried that it’s going to sit there for another 20 years and nothing is going to happen.”