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Lucas Museum lawsuit could go to trial by fall

Movie mogul George Lucas wants to build this museum south of Soldier Field; Friends of the Parks has urged moving it west, to the other side of Lake Shore Drive. | Photo courtesy of Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, distributed by the Associated Press

The battle over movie mogul George Lucas’ proposed $400 million lakefront museum could go to trial as soon as this fall.

However, U.S. District Judge John Darrah on Wednesday reminded attorneys for the city of Chicago that the controversy could have been resolved much sooner if not for their own delays — including a bid to lift the order preventing work from starting at the site. A trial had been set for March 14.

Lawyers for the city and Friends of the Parks, the group which supports the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art but opposes its location, appeared in Darrah’s courtroom Wednesday.

The judge reviewed the history of the case and told the two sides to return next week with a plan for how it should move forward. He said previous schedules proposed by the city were “manifestly unfair,” and he said “the consequences of doing this wrong are severe.”

City Hall lawyer Brian Sieve said the two sides already have agreed to a schedule offered by Friends of the Parks, and he said his goal is simply to “get this case ready for trial.”

In previous court filings, attorneys for the city have said Chicago is in danger of losing the museum that Lucas wants to build south of Soldier Field; Mayor Rahm Emanuel is offering 17 acres of lakefront property that is now a parking lot but which Friends of the Parks would like to see restored to greenspace.

Earlier this week, a Far South Side alderman urged the museum to consider building instead on the site of the old U.S. Steel South Works plant. That suggestion from Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th), whose ward includes the site, came after a split between the steel giant and a prominent Chicago developer killed plans for a “new city” on the long-vacant site.

Sadlowski-Garza even suggested ferrying visitors to the museum on “a hovercraft like an amusement park ride, shaped like the Millennium Falcon.”

Friends of the Parks has urged Lucas to consider building on the west side of Lake Shore Drive on a deck above rail yards — similar to the way Millennium Park was built.

“If it makes sense to build a parking garage on that site, why not just build the whole campus there. It’s not part of the public trust doctrine. It’s not affected by that. It’s on the west side of Lake Shore Drive. Why not just put it there and all of this trouble would go away?” Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks had said at the time.

“It still allows for the museum to have a prominent place. It has all the same benefits to the economy. It’s similarly accessible. It just doesn’t take public trust land. We would not have legal recourse, nor would we pursue a lawsuit.”

Irizarry acknowledged that the need to build a deck above rail yards would increase the cost of the legacy project and complicate the logistics. But she said, “Mr. Lucas is a billionaire. He could afford it.”

Irizarry urged Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Lucas to consider the site change because Darrah had warned City Hall of the risk it would take by breaking ground early — especially if it ultimately loses a court battle over the museum’s location.

“Whatever you’ve done is going to have to be undone at cost to somebody other than the plaintiffs,” Darrah said at the time.

State 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 have written in court filings. “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.”

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.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman