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Friends of the Parks: Appeals court can’t end Lucas Museum fight

A rendering of the proposed new design for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, in which the museum would take the place of the current McCormick Place East convention center building. | Provided

Friends of the Parks vowed Wednesday to take its legal battle over the Lucas Museum to state court if a federal lawsuit blocking “Star Wars” creator George Lucas’ pet project on the lake is tossed by a court of appeals.

In a 74-page filing late Wednesday with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the advocacy group said that it is entitled to its day in court. And had it not been for the delay tactics of City Hall, “they would have had it by now.”

Friends of the Parks also questioned whether Lucas Museum of Narrative Art officials are serious about taking the project to another city — where they would have to start from scratch.

“To begin again in another city — if that really is the LMNA’s intent — and start over with a multi-year process would be senseless,” lawyers for the group wrote.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel attempted an end-run last week around U.S. District Judge John Darrah, asking a federal appeals court to order the judge to dismiss a Friends of the Parks lawsuit that Darrah kept alive with a ruling this month.

The group’s lawsuit has stalled plans for the proposed Lucas Museum, apparently frustrating the 72-year-old mogul and prompting other cities to begin courting the project, city lawyers said in their appeal.

Lucas’ desire to start construction isn’t unusual, but trying to get an appeals court to overturn a judge before a case has gone to trial is rare — and unnecessary, Friends’ lawyer Thomas Geoghegan wrote in a response filed with the court.

“In characterizing their situation as a looming catastrophe, Defendants point only to the vague preferences of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art to go forward,” he wrote. “But virtually every real estate developer would prefer to build now, rather than later.”

The Friends’ lawsuit challenges the mayor’s original plan to give 17 acres of lakefront land near Soldier Field to Lucas, and the group has said it would also fight an alternate site Emanuel has proposed at McCormick Place.

Legal experts have said Darrah’s ruling might have flaws, but said Emanuel’s bid to go over the judge’s head is a longshot. Darrah has already rejected the city’s motion to dismiss while sympathizing with Friends of the Parks’ central argument that a 99-year lease would essentially give the land to a private entity, instead of reserving it for public benefit.

In their petition, city attorneys acknowledged they are asking for exceptional action from the appeals court, but they argued that the battle for the Lucas Museum is “no ordinary case.”

“This case involves a public project of enormous consequence to the city and its residents, and — absent mandamus relief — the district court’s denial of the motions to dismiss will kill the project. Only swift vindication of defendants’ clear and unequivocal right to dismissal will allow them to retain the museum,” the petition states.

A document attached to the city’s petition quotes the vice president of the Lucas Museum as saying the museum would drop plans to locate in Chicago unless the “legal uncertainty is promptly resolved.”

In a statement last week, Lucas’ wife, Chicago businesswoman Mellody Hobson, blasted Friends of the Parks for “hijacking” the process and preventing Chicago from accepting “the largest philanthropic gift to an American city in the 21st century.”

Lucas turned his attention to Chicago in 2014, only after the board of The Presidio Trust voted down his proposal to build the museum on a picturesque site within the boundaries of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area outside San Francisco.

Contributing: Fran Spielman