Mayor Rahm Emanuel maintained Wednesday that support is building for his plan to demolish McCormick Place East to make way for movie mogul George Lucas’ museum and a giant green roof with 12 new acres of lakefront park space.
“Religious, civic and community leaders. All of the museum presidents, chambers of commerce, organized labor and the building trades as well as the hotels. They all know that all of the changes we’re talking about would be a major boon culturally, economically and job-wise,” the mayor told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Emanuel said there are “a lot of conversations happening across a broad section” of the community, including Friends of the Parks, whose lawsuit challenging Emanuel’s original museum site near Soldier Field forced the mayor to call an audible.
On Wednesday, Friends of the Park issued a statement more open-minded and encouraging to City Hall than the one the group released last week, when the Sun-Times lifted the veil on Emanuel’s new plan to keep the Lucas museum in Chicago.
“We are pleased that the mayor and the city recently opened the door to Friends of the Parks for more direct conversation about the Lucas Museum,” Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry was quoted as saying in an emailed statement.
“Our intent, as it always has been, is to protect, preserve and promote parks and to ensure that everyone has the best possible access to lakefront land, while encouraging the city to find the right spot for the Lucas Museum,” she added. “We continue to seek more information and clarification as we engage in discussions with the city.
In a text message to the Sun-Times, Irizarry said she would have “nothing more to say at the moment.”
Deputy Mayor Steve Koch was equally tight-lipped. He’s negotiating with Friends of the Parks in hopes of persuading them to agree in advance not to file a lawsuit against the new site.
“They’re working on it and we’re waiting to see how they respond. They’re going through their process. I don’t see any reason to go beyond that. I don’t see how it helps us to talk about what we’re doing with them,” Koch said.
Emanuel’s plan calls for tearing down the above-ground portion of McCormick Place East, building the museum on a portion of the site that includes Arie Crown Theater and replacing the lost convention space by building a $500 million McCormick Place expansion over Martin Luther King Drive.
The plan would require Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders embroiled in a marathon budget stalemate to extend the life of five tourism taxes and authorize $1.2 billion in new borrowing for a Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority that maxed out its credit card on a previous expansion.
On Wednesday, McCormick Place CEO Lori Healey disclosed that the 250,000-square-foot design of the “bridge building” was actually drafted by architect Tom Ventulet in December 2014 at the request of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.
“It wasn’t pulled out of the air. We’ve been looking at it for a long time,” Healey said, noting that a $743 million upfront check from Lucas would be used to make the first 16 years of debt payments on the expansion.
“Without the Lucas museum cash in the first 16 years financing the transaction, the authority has no ability to issue any bonds to do this kind of work,” she said.
“We’ll still be looking at this building 25 years from now. We’ll just continue on the way we are trying to patch Lakeside together. You can’t do a capital project based on $20 million a year,” she said.
Even if a protracted court battle can be avoided, Civic Federation President Laurence Msall has called the mayor’s 11th-hour plan to save the Lucas museum a long shot, considering the state’s other pressing needs.
“It’s very hard to see how this project and this museum can be effectively embraced by the Illinois General Assembly along with the requisite tax increases and extensions tied to it, without a resolution to the state’s budget crisis and the financial crisis facing the Chicago Public Schools, the city of Chicago and everyone who relies on the state of Illinois,” Msall said.
On Wednesday, Koch and Healey were still holding out hope that the spring session could end with a blockbuster, kitchen-sink deal that resolves the budget and school crises and moves on to resolve the Lucas museum controversy.
“You’ve got to keep all the balls moving forward all the time. You can’t focus on one thing,” said Healey, who served as chief of staff and planning commissioner under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
“To let an opportunity pass by because there are other, more pressing problems? I’m not a big fan of lost opportunities,” she said.