Park advocates sue city to block Lucas Museum on lakefront

Friends of the Parks on Thursday followed through on the threat of a court challenge to block movie mogul George Lucas from building an interactive museum on free lakefront land and posed two giant risks: one political, the other cultural.

The political risk is for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who proposed the giveaway of 17 acres of lakefront land near McCormick Place to snatch the museum away from Lucas’ home town of San Francisco.

If independent voters warm to the cause of protecting lakefront land and view Emanuel as running roughshod over it, the mayor risks losing the lakefront vote in the Feb. 24 mayoral election at a time when he can least afford it. His poll numbers are in the tank.

The cultural risk is to Chicago.

If Friends of the Parks wins the legal battle and Lucas is denied the lakefront site he covets, the city risks losing the $400 million museum that will house the Star Wars creator’s impressive collection of artwork and move-making memorabilia.

That’s how the door opened for Chicago after it closed in San Francisco. A federal panel rejected the picturesque Presidio site that was Lucas’ choice.

One way or the other, an ugly legal battle akin to the one that preceded the renovation of Soldier Field will play out during the mayoral campaign.

That is, unless Emanuel pressures Lucas to accept an alternate site, like the truck staging area for McCormick Place or at the old Michael Reese Hopsital site.

“Particularly in the last month, possibly in response to the design and also the fact that people are a little bit concerned about the fact that this was presented as a done deal, that has really galvanized the public’s opposition to this project. I do believe that is growing,” Friends of the Parks President Cassandra Francis said Thursday.

“We will continue to do all that we can to frame that growing voice and momentum . . . [so] we can continue to build [support]. If it becomes an election issue, so be it.”

From the outset, Friends of the Parks has condemned the mayor’s plan as a clear violation of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance and the 1973 Lakefront Plan of Chicago that prohibits “further private development” east of Lake Shore Drive.

But the lawsuit filed Thursday hinges on a slightly different legal strategy.

It argues that the proposed site of the Lucas museum “consists entirely of land recovered from the navigable waters of Lake Michigan” and that the state of Illinois is the “exclusive trustee” of that landfill.

Late Thursday afternoon, the city’s legal department issued a statement saying it would file a motion to seek the dismissal of the lawsuit.

“We believe the plaintiff’s claims are legally baseless and defective on multiple grounds,” the statement said. The Lucas museum, it added, “will be in full compliance with all applicable laws and will be treated like every other museum on the campus. This museum is a substantial investment in Chicago’s cultural scene that will create green space, billions of dollars in local economic impact and hundreds of construction and permanent jobs.”

Even if Emanuel succeeds in gaining required authorization from the Illinois General Assembly, the lawsuit would continue.

That’s because neither the city nor the state has the legal authority to take action that “impairs the property as a natural resource or pristine physical environment or impairs or interferes with the use and enjoyment of the trust property,” the suit contends.

“It is a very slippery slope. If we emasculate the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, the local Chicago embodiment of the public trust doctrine, we will have a very difficult time stopping anything further on the lakefront,” Francis told a City Hall news conference Thursday.

“This will lead to shoreline sprawl. And one of the questions I would have is, where are we gonna put Richard Branson’s museum then?”

Tom Geoghegan, an attorney representing Friends of the Parks, said additions to the Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium were legal while construction of the Lucas Museum is not because those expansions were authorized by the Illinois General Assembly.

“Whether or not the construction of those structures, land recovered from the waters of Lake Michigan, was a violation of the public trust doctrine is a question that belongs to the past. It’s over. It’s settled. They’re there,” he said.

“What we’re concerned with is that there be no more breaches of the public trust doctrine if any occurred in the past. . . . What this suit is intended to do is to ensure that the lakefront is protected in the future. There is not that much space left. And we have to hold on and fight for what we have.”

Earlier this year, Chicago Park District General Counsel Tim King argued that, although Lucas plans to use his fortune to build the museum, the building will be owned by the Park District.

“That doesn’t mean the Park District is cleaning the toilets or maintaining and repairing the structure. But in the event any of these entities cease to operate as museums, those properties revert back to the park district. That means we’re the owners,” King said then.

“The way it will be negotiated and ultimately written into the agreement is, for the duration, whether it’s 50, 75 or 99 years, so long as the museum continues to operate, it’s free from interference. The only time ownership come into question is if it ceases to operate as a museum.”

King was asked whether the arrangement was being done to get around the legal issues.

“Absolutely not. This is a common practice with all the other lakefront museums,” he said.

On Thursday, Francis was asked whether the $1-a-year lease would be a successful end-run around the legal issues.

“Whether the museum is public or private, that’s going to be in contention,” she said.

“We believe it is a private facility because the city does not have control over what goes into the museum. It does not have control over access to the museum. And while the land may be owned by the Chicago Park District [along with] the facility, if it is a long-term lease, that starts looking an awful lot like ownership.”

Earlier Thursday, before the city’s legal department had issued an official response, mayoral spokesman Adam Collins had declined to comment on the lawsuit but had called the museum “a generous gift that will expand the rich cultural and educational opportunities for children and families in every neighborhood, and visitors from around the world.”

A spokeswoman for the Lucas Museum had no comment Thursday, other than to say it remains “focused and committed to Chicago.”

Friends of the Park lawsuit

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