Will court decision derail Lucas Museum?

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The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art released these renderings of the proposed structure, which would have about 300,000 square feet of exhibit space. | Distributed by the Associated Press

Movie mogul George Lucas’ dream of building a $400 million museum in Chicago remains on hold after a federal judge on Thursday kept alive a lawsuit challenging a mayoral giveaway of 17 acres of prime lakefront land.

The viability of the project is now being called into question, given that construction will not start on the schedule Lucas wants, and the chief cheerleader for the project, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has never been politically weaker.

U.S. District Judge John W. Darrah lent new credibility in his ruling Thursday 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.”

The lawsuit was filed by Friends of the Parks, which supports the museum but opposes its location — a parking lot south of Soldier Field — as well as the giveaway of lakefront land. It has urged the City Council to reject the plan and force Lucas to consider alternatives. The group now expects to depose city officials about the deal. A bench trial in the case has been set for March 14.

“The effort to give away public lakefront land to build the Lucas Museum amounts to yet another cover up by the Emanuel administration — one in which the true motives behind this decision and the true cost to the public have not yet seen the light of day,” Juanita Irizarry, Friends of the Parks’ executive director, said in a statement.

In an emailed statement, Chicago Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner said: “The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is an unparalleled investment in the City’s museum campus and our cultural and educational offerings, not to mention an incredible addition of green space to Chicago’s lakefront. We will continue to vigorously defend the decision of the Park District board and City Council to welcome the Museum to Chicago.”

Although Thursday’s ruling merely keeps the lawsuit alive, there is speculation that it just might spell the beginning of the end for the project. City Hall sources noted that Lucas had hoped to begin construction in the spring or early summer and that timetable will not be possible, now that the lawsuit is headed to trial.

When Lucas considers the deposition, discovery and legal fees that will now be required, and the very real possibility that Friends of the Parks could actually win, he might just throw in the towel.

Lucas’ hometown of San Francisco and Los Angeles are breathing down Chicago’s neck and would like nothing more than to snatch the coveted project.

Further complicating the issue for Lucas is the fact that Emanuel, the project’s biggest champion, has been weakened considerably by his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

When Emanuel engineered the giveaway of prime lakefront land, he was at the height of his political power. He was fully capable of ramming the controversial project through the Chicago Park District Board, the Chicago Plan Commission and the City Council.

Now, Lucas can rightfully question whether Emanuel has the juice to get the project done. That’s especially true now that the legal battle is ramping up during a second term in office that is almost certain to be Emanuel’s last — either because he’s unelectable or because he chooses to call it quits.

“The Lucas people are already impatient. I can’t imagine they’ll have the stomach for this,” said a source close to the project.

The lawsuit also continues despite legislation that Emanuel helped push through the Illinois General Assembly that was tailor-made to eliminate the lawsuit’s central argument. Tucked into legal protections for the Obama presidential library was language that also allows construction on formerly submerged land that was once part of Lake Michigan. However, Darrah said Friends of the Parks made a compelling argument that the legislation was not sufficient to turn the land over to the museum.

Chicago offered the lakefront site land to the privately financed museum, Lucas’ brainchild. It will include up to 300,000 square feet of exhibition space — 100,000 square feet less than originally planned for the futuristic structure designed by Chinese architect Ma Yansong.

Plans also include nearly 5 acres of green space to be divided between a garden, an event prairie, an eco-park and a dune field.

In exchange for losing Soldier Field’s South Parking Lot to the museum, the Chicago Bears bargained hard for a host of marketing and advertising opportunities that could go a long way toward financing stadium upgrades. Sources have said the capital projects were viewed as so essential, the marketing agreement will live on regardless of whether the Lucas Museum is ever built.

Ma has called his conceptual design for a flowing white sculptural building topped by a Saturn-like floating ring of an observation deck a “new type of architecture for the world.”

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