Friends of the Parks block more ‘open, free and clear’ lakefront

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A rendering of what the Lucas Museum would look like at a proposed site at McCormick Place East.

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The Friends of the Parks are no friends of Chicago’s lakefront, not this time.

The group’s mission, in their own words, is to fight to keep the lakefront forever “open, free and clear.”

Yet when presented with a chance to do that mission one better, to champion a project that would result in a lakefront that is even more open, free and clear, they balk. Worse than balk, they stand in opposition.

As a likely consequence, a massive convention center that never should have been built on the lakefront will not be torn down. And it will not be replaced by a much smaller and more appropriate museum. And 12 new acres of parkland — open, clear and free — will not be added.

An ugly parking lot, for that matter, will remain an ugly parking lot.

EDITORIAL

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In their zeal to preserve what is, the Friends of the Parks refuse to see what could be.

The group on Tuesday declared their opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to build filmmaker George Lucas’ museum on the site of McCormick Place East. That effectively may kill the deal.

If the Friends of the Parks sue, the legal fight could drag out for years, and Lucas will pick up and move on. He has made his growing impatience clear, and both San Francisco and Los Angeles are courting him.

There are legitimate questions as to whether the Lucas Museum, dedicated to the visual arts, would be worth the financial risk to Chicago. It would require borrowing $1.2 billion, largely to build replacement convention space elsewhere, and raising five taxes aimed at tourists, such as on hotels and rental cars. We’re still waiting for the mayor to make a more convincing case on that score.

But the Friends of the Parks’ opposition stems from no such practical concerns. They are living in world that does not exist and never will. We appreciate their fear of setting a precedent that might erode legal protections against future lakefront commercial development, but the commercial development in this case is already there — an eyesore of a convention center that does not belong.

We fail to understand how it violates the Friends of the Parks’ first principles to get on board with a plan that would tear down more than it puts up and add new parkland to boot. What’s the real-world alternative?

Nobody is about to tear down McCormick Place East — or, for that matter, the parking lot south of Soldier Field originally eyed for the Lucas Museum — just to plant more grass and trees. That will never reach the top of the taxpayers’ “to-do” list.

Juanita Irizarry, executive director of the Friends of the Parks, told the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman that Lucas ultimately is to blame if the museum is not built in Chicago, since he is the one who insists on a lakefront location. The city, she said, “should not be held hostage to one man’s desires.”

Nonsense. Lucas isn’t holding anybody hostage. He has made a proposal, which includes a promise to kick in $743 million of his own money, and Chicago can take it or leave it. Fair enough.

To our thinking, the blame will lie squarely with the Friends of the Parks, an organization with whom we have frequently joined forces with in the past. We can’t imagine they speak for all, or even most, lakefront preservationists this time.

“We don’t think it’s appropriate to exchange building on lakefront land for other things — even if it’s park land,” Irizarry told Spielman. “It’s inappropriate to build on public trust land.”

Precisely so. Which is why McCormick Place East never should have been built. And why Friends of the Parks should reconsider their opposition to tearing it down now.

We fail to see how the spirit of “open, free and clear” is threatened by a plan to make Chicago’s celebrated lakefront a little more open, a little more free and a little more clear.

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