Analysis: City loses Lucas Museum; Rahm loses big, politically

SHARE Analysis: City loses Lucas Museum; Rahm loses big, politically

“Star Wars” creator George Lucas. | Sun-Times file photo

Movie mogul George Lucas’ decision to pull up stakes will cost Chicago a $743 million private investment, the jobs and contracts that come with it and a positive, albeit bizarre-looking addition to the museum campus.

But it’s also a political loss for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

After expending an extraordinary amount of his diminished political capital to satisfy the billionaire creator of Star Wars fame, Emanuel now has nothing to show for it.

The mayor handed over 17 acres of prime lakefront land near Soldier Field for a project that Chicagoans never embraced or fully understood. He did it because Lucas wanted to build his legacy project near water.

Emanuel’s handpicked site selection committee went through the motions of holding public hearings and considering dozens of other sites.

But Chicagoans have seen that movie a thousand times before. It always ends with the guy with the clout — in this case, a billionaire movie-maker himself — getting what he wants. This time, Friends of the Parks changed the script.

In a news release, Lucas cited the group’s lawsuit targeting the city giveaway of a parking lot near Solider Field as the key reason for pulling out of Chicago.

“No one benefits from continuing their seemingly unending litigation to protect a parking lot,” Lucas said. “The actions initiated by Friends of Parks and their recent attempts to extract concessions from the city have effectively overridden approvals received from numerous democratically elected bodies of government.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel also pinned the blame on the Friends of the Parks lawsuit.

“We tried to find common ground to resolve the lawsuit – the sole barrier preventing the start of the museum’s construction. But despite our best efforts to negotiate a common solution that would keep this tremendous cultural and economic asset in Chicago, Friends of the Parks chose to instead negotiate with themselves while Lucas negotiated with cities on the West Coast.”

Friends of the Park, too, cited their disappointment in the decision, arguing they’d rather Lucas choose another Chicago site.

“It is unfortunate that the Lucas Museum has made the decision to leave Chicago rather than locate the museum on one of the several alternative sites that are not on Chicago’s lakefront. That would have been the true win-win,” Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry and Board Chair Lauren Moltz said in a statement.

The fact that Lucas was never willing to consider available sites away from the lakefront, either at the old Michael Reese Hospital site or on rail yards west of Lake Shore Drive, underscores his image as a Hollywood prima donna.

Emanuel, whose brother is the most powerful agent in Hollywood, was willing to appease Lucas even if it meant giving away lakefront land that wasn’t his to give.

He was even willing to try an improbable end-run around the federal judge who had sympathized with Friends of the Parks’ central argument and kept the group’s lawsuit alive: 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 fact that Lucas was unwilling to wait around for that federal appeals court ruling showed how much of a legal long-shot it was.

The only other site that Lucas was willing to consider was also on the lakefront. And from the standpoint of mayoral politics,  the second site was even worse than the first.

It once again opened Emanuel to the charge that he was out of touch with everyday Chicagoans with priorities that were out of whack.

The mayor was so desperate to salvage the project, he offered to demolish the above-ground portion of McCormick Place East and replace the lost convention space by borrowing $1.2 billion and extending the life of five tourism taxes.

That was a non-starter at a time when the marathon state budget stalemate has cut off funds to vital social services, state universities and college scholarships to needy students and when Chicago parents are wondering whether their public schools will open on time this fall.

When Friends of the Parks agreed to negotiate on the McCormick Place site — conveniently after the deal was already dead — the group hurt itself but didn’t help Emanuel. His image as “Mayor 1 percent” was reinforced.

Now, Lucas is taking his ball — er, museum — and going home to California where his collection of artwork and movie-making memorabilia probably belongs.

Emanuel can rightly blame Friends of the Parks for being a mercurial and unreliable negotiating partner.

He can demonize the group, label them “Friends of the Parking Lot” and accuse them of “extortion” for making a brazen, 11th-hour demand for 5 percent of revenues from the one museum that was not going to receive a taxpayer subsidy.

But, while Friends of the Parks has lost credibility, Emanuel has lost political capital he could not afford to waste.

Nobody can fault a mayor of Chicago for going after a nearly $1 billion private investment that could put people to work while attracting tourists and enthralling and educating local residents.

But when you stick your political neck out as far as Emanuel did, you had better make sure you come away with the win.

The long-running Lucas Museum saga looks more like a repeat of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Olympics folly: A political diversion from more pressing problems that wasted time and energy, only to go up in flames.

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