Lucas Museum ‘seriously pursuing locations outside of Chicago’

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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

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Hail Mary plan to keep movie mogul George Lucas’ museum in Chicago suffered a potential death blow Tuesday when Friends of the Parks declared its opposition to the McCormick Place site and threatened another lawsuit.

“Mr. Lucas and the city only wanted a lakefront site, and we do not believe that is acceptable. We don’t think it’s appropriate to exchange building on lakefront land for other things — even if it’s park land. It’s inappropriate to build on public trust land,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks.

“Mr. Lucas may leave. That is ultimately his decision. But there are many other viable sites. Chicagoans should not be held hostage to one man’s desires. The public trust must be protected and we will continue to fight for our lakefront to remain open, free and clear.”

Hours later, Lucas’ wife, Mellody Hobson, issued an emotional statement that all but threw in the towel.

“We are now seriously pursuing locations outside of Chicago,” Hobson said. “If the museum is forced to leave, it will be because of the Friends of the Parks and that is no victory for anyone. . . . As an African American who has spent my entire life in this city I love, it saddens me that young black and brown children will be denied the chance to benefit from what this museum will offer. . . . In refusing to accept the extraordinary public benefits of the museum, the Friends of the Parks has proven itself to be no friend of Chicago.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported exclusively in mid-April that Emanuel has shifted his focus from Soldier Field’s south parking lot to the site of McCormick Place East to avoid a protracted legal battle over the Soldier Field site and satisfy Lucas’ demand to get moving on the legacy project.

Irizarry acknowledged that, by declaring its opposition to the McCormick Place site, Friends of the Parks may well be putting the “final nail” in Emanuel’s hopes of keeping the Lucas Museum in Chicago.

But she refused to wear the political jacket for it.

“The vision to put the Lucas Museum on the lakefront in the first place is what ultimately killed this deal. They should have fought for a legal site to begin with. It’s ultimately Mr. Lucas who wanted it his way or the highway,” Irizarry said.

“It would be too bad for Chicago to lose the Lucas museum, but that would demonstrate it’s not a commitment of George Lucas and [wife] Mellody Hobson to stay in Chicago. . . . It ultimately lies in the lap of Mr. Lucas as to whether he’s willing to cooperate with the broader needs of Chicago and put it on another site,” she said. “If he’s not, folks should ask Mr. Lucas, `Why not?’ ”

The Chicago businesswoman who chairs After School Matters said she and Lucas had worked for two years with “every relevant city agency, community leader, and policy maker” to finalize “what would be the largest philanthropic gift to an American city in the 21st century.” But it was all for naught.

“From the beginning, this process has been co-opted and hijacked by a small special interest group,” she said.

When Friends of the Parks “sued the city in order to preserve a parking lot,” Hobson said the Lucas museum was offered the plan to replace “an underutilized and outdated convention space” that would also add more than 12 acres of new parkland.

“Yet, even with this additional park space, an organization that claims to ‘preserve, protect, improve and promote the use of parks and open space’ now opposes this as well. While they claim to be a ‘strong steward of Chicago and a partner to its progress,’ their actions and decision rob our state of more than $2 billion in economic benefits, thousands of jobs and countless educational opportunities for children and adults alike,” Hobson was quoted as saying.

Read more about the Lucas Museum

The mayor’s original plan to give Lucas 17 acres of lakefront land near Soldier Field has been embroiled in a Friends of the Parks lawsuit kept alive by a federal judge who sympathizes with the group’s central argument: that a 99-year lease “effectively surrenders control” of prime lakefront property to a museum that is “not for the benefit of the public,” but would “promote private and/or commercial interests.”

The same legal issues could be raised about the McCormick Place site. But by demolishing the building known as Lakeside Center and opening up 12 new acres of green space, Emanuel was hoping to negotiate a settlement with Friends of the Park that averted a legal challenge.

Hopes were raised earlier this week when Friends of the Parks “acquiesced” to a 30-day hold on its lawsuit to give the Illinois General Assembly time to consider Emanuel’s backup plan.

But sources familiar with the high-stakes negotiations disclosed that four hours after agreeing to the stay and saying they were willing to negotiate, Friends of the Parks did a “complete 180” and declared its opposition to the McCormick Place plan.

“We’re disappointed and baffled at Friends of the Parks’ comments, which are contradictory to the decision they made less than 24 hours ago to stay the lawsuit. Friends of the Parks has taken inconsistent and incoherent positions, making it impossible to work with them,” mayoral spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier said in an emailed statement.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the city quietly withdrew its motion for a stay in the case.

City Hall all but gave up hours after Irizarry snuffed out the mayor’s dream of a negotiated settlement and a united front in Springfield.

She insisted that the mayor and Lucas consider “non-lakefront” sites.

They include the old Michael Reese Hospital site acquired by former Mayor Richard M. Daley for an Olympic Village before Chicago’s first-round flame-out in the 2016 Olympics sweepstakes; an 18th Street site across from the original Soldier Field site and the marshalling yards for trucks and recreational vehicles west of McCormick Place.

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 complex and controversial plan would require Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Democratic legislative leaders and an Illinois General Assembly embroiled in a marathon budget stalemate to extend the life of five tourism taxes and authorize $1.2 billion in new borrowing for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

A $743 million upfront cash contribution from Lucas would make the project possible for a McPier Authority that has already maxed out its credit card on an earlier expansion that included a new hotel and a 10,000-seat basketball arena for DePaul University that would double as an “event center” for McCormick Place.

The check would be used to make the first 16 years of debt payments on the “bridge building” expansion.

The plan was already an election year longshot for a deadlocked General Assembly.

There’s little chance state legislators would agree to authorize a $1.2 billion borrowing and raise five tourism taxes if they know that Friends of the Parks was waiting in the wings to challenge the mayor’s backup plan.

On Tuesday, Irizarry argued that, no matter what Friends of the Parks does, the mayor’s plan has two chances of passing: slim and none.

“This is a very heavy lift for the mayor at a very difficult time for Chicago and Illinois. There are other priorities and very difficult financial realities. We are very concerned about the impact on taxes in this difficult financial time. We should all question public policymakers’ prioirites,” Irizarry said.

“It is not highly likely that a deal of this complexity can be moved forward in the time frame and under the conditions presented,” she said. “There are lots of other needs in the city and state. We have gridlock as it is at state level.”

With Los Angeles and Lucas’ home town of San Francisco poised to pounce, sources said the movie mogul of “Star Wars” fame is prepared to wait until the end of the spring session, but not much longer than that.

If the General Assembly doesn’t approve Emanuel’s backup plan by May 31, Lucas is likely to pick up stakes and take his legacy project back to the West Coast.

That’s where it was before a San Francisco commission rejected Lucas preferred Presidio site on federal parkland.

Deputy Mayor Steve Koch, who has been brokering talks in hopes of reaching a negotiated settlement with Friends of the Parks, could not be reached for comment.

But Irizarry maintained Tuesday that the Lakeside Center’s days are numbered, whether Lucas builds his museum in Chicago or not. The massive convention center, rebuilt on the lakefront after the original burned down in 1967, needs more than $225 million in repairs over the next 15-to-20 years, McPier officials have said.

“There are many folks throughout the city who would love to see McCormick Place [East] gone. It’s something we expect will happen one way or the other in the not too distant future. It has become obsolete. There have been conversations about other uses for that site because it is obsolete. We expect it will eventually come down. We don’t think an excuse is necessary,” she said.

Lucas Museum Press Release

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