Friends of the Parks on Friday opened the door to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Hail Mary plan to demolish McCormick Place East to make way for movie mogul George Lucas’ $400 million museum and a giant green roof with 12 new acres of lakefront park space.
The fact that Friends of the Park did not automatically dismiss the idea or threaten to file a lawsuit similar to the one now pending against Emanuel’s original site near Soldier Field was seen by City Hall as a hopeful sign.
The same lakefront protection and public trust doctrine issues could be raised about the McCormick Place site. But Emanuel is hoping that by removing an eyesore of a building and opening up 12 acres of green space, he can negotiate a settlement with Friends of the Park that averts any legal challenge.
In response to the proposal, Lauren Moltz, board chairman of Friends of the Parks, said: “Friends of the Parks appreciates that the City of Chicago finally reached out to us [Thursday] with the mayor’s new idea for the Lucas Museum. We will discuss and analyze this new information while we review the discovery materials we also just received from the city this week.
“Friends of the Parks will continue in our commitment to preserve, protect, promote and improve the use of our parks and in our historic role in upholding the principles that have fostered the jewel of a lakefront that we all enjoy.”
Chicago businesswoman Mellody Hobson made it clear that her billionaire husband Lucas is not willing to wait years to build a legacy project he wants to complete and enjoy within his lifetime.
“Everybody knows where my heart is. I’m doing everything I possibly can to have the museum in the city that I love. But we also have to deal with reality and time. And time is working against us,” Hobson said in television interview Friday.
“A protracted lawsuit is not going to work given that my husband is 73 years old. Two years of a lawsuit, then years to build it. He wants to see this museum opened in his lifetime.”
Hobson was asked whether she views the McCormick Place site at a way out of a protracted legal battle.
“We’re not trying to get around anything. We’re trying to . . . receive ideas that have been brought to us, quite frankly,” she said.
“The one thing about the McCormick Place site [is] it’s obviously a building that is not really functioning . . . Our museum would be so much smaller than that current building. Our museum would add 12 acres of park land to the lakefront that do not exist. It seems like a win-win to us. I know there are a lot of hoops to jump through. We’re still in the idea phase, but it was a compelling idea.”
Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez served on the site selection committee comprised of handpicked mayoral appointees that chose the Soldier Field parcel.
On Friday, Ramirez urged Friends of the Parks to sign on to the McCormick Place compromise so Lucas can get about the business of building a project that will be a boon to jobs and tourism, and the McPier Authority can replace the building known as Lakeside Center with an ultra-modern building.
“In some ways, this deal is better because it resolves a lot of issues. You get the museum. You expand contiguous show space for McCormick Place. You resolve the parking issues. And get rid of a building that’s controversial because aesthetically, it’s not as appealing as a new structure. And it opens up the lakefront,” Ramirez said.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported exclusively this week that McCormick Place East—denounced by former Mayor Richard M. Daley as a “Berlin Wall” along the lakefront that destroyed the Chicago skyline—would be demolished to make way for the Lucas Museum and 12 new acres of lakefront park space, under a mayoral compromise in the works.
The Lucas Museum would be built on the south end of the site in a space that currently includes Arie Crown Theater, sources said. Underground parking for 2,000 vehicles as well as subterranean storage, heating and cooling systems would remain, reducing the overall cost to Lucas.
Emanuel’s proposed compromise also calls for expanding McCormick Place yet again, in part, by building a second floor over the street that connects the two newest convention center buildings.
Ramirez said Friday he was briefed this week on how the convention center expansion would be financed, even after the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority utilized its excess bonding capacity to build a new hotel and a basketball arena for DePaul University that would double as an “event center” for McCormick Place.
“There is a funding plan. They shared it with us. It seemed reasonable,” Ramirez said, refusing to reveal details.
The Emanuel administration is expected to reveal more details regarding funding on Monday, for the entire project, which all told, will cost about $800 million, including the demolition work and the construction of the museum and new park.
Other sources said the plan involved borrowing against revenues generated by building new parking for McCormick Place and filling seldom-used parking spaces beneath the Lakeside Center with museum patrons.
Still unclear is whether the Chicago Park District, which owns the land, would be compensated for lost revenue if Lakeside Center is demolished. A lease that runs through 2042 would net the Park District roughly $50 million.
About the only opposition to the mayor’s compromise was coming from the architectural community.
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said it would be a travesty to tear down a “remarkable” building designed by “some of the finest students” of famed architect Mies van der Rohe.
Instead of demolishing Lakeside Center, Miller suggested installing the Lucas Museum within the convention center’s translucent black walls and lighting those exhibits so they could be seen at night from miles away.
Miller denounced the mayor’s plan as a “poke in the eye” to Chicago’s architectural legacy.
“Chicago demolishes what other cities could only dream to build. The whole idea that we would take a first-class convention hall — the finest of all of the McCormick Place buildings, most not worthy of preservation — and demolish the best of them” makes no sense, he said.