A funny thing happened on the way to a recent BGA Idea Forum entitled, “What’s the Force Behind the Lucas Museum?”
“The Force” wasn’t with us.
Even though the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is among the most elaborate projects Chicago’s ever entertained, no one from city government accepted our invitation to show up and discuss it.
Nobody. No one. Zilch.
This is the same museum Mayor Rahm Emanuel is unabashedly in favor of building on the city’s lakefront, which is sparking strong opposition and now a lawsuit aimed at blocking it.
But the mayor opted not to send any of his policy or public relations people to our Nov. 12 forum, which was co-hosted by the Union League Club, attended by nearly 100 people, and broadcast by CAN-TV.
Instead, City Hall referred us to the Chicago Park District, which had our invitation for nearly a month without replying to follow-up emails and phone calls. We also invited Ald. Will Burns, whose 4th ward includes the proposed museum site, but he declined to attend or send a representative.
Our final rejection came from Lucas Museum groups here and in California, but they ultimately recommended former Sun-Times architecture critic and ex-Daley Administration deputy Lee Bey, who was on Emanuel’s site selection task force.
Bey did a stellar job of defending the project and the site, but he wasn’t there to speak for City Hall.
The other panelists were from Friends of the Park, which filed the lawsuit challenging the lakefront location the next day, and the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents — SOAR — which played a key role in keeping the Children’s Museum on Navy Pier instead of moving to Grant Park.
It was lively and informative — civic engagement at its best — and you can watch a videotape here:
But the question remains: Why didn’t anyone in authority step up to discuss this fascinating project with regular folks?
Whether it’s our forum or another public hearing, city residents are entitled to ask questions and get answers from the powerful people who support the project and its location.
Sadly, the locals haven’t had much of an opportunity yet.
Ever since the idea surfaced in April, there’s been a sense of “fait accompli,” which is a fancy way of describing what New Jersey Governor Chris Christie likes to shout at hecklers: “Sit down and shut up.”
Here’s what we know so far:
George Lucas, a California-based film maker and creator of the iconic “Star Wars” franchise, picks Chicago, where his wife works, as the home of his personal art collection, and vows to pay up to $400 million to construct a museum. His one condition: Build it near a major body of water.
So without much adieu and little public input, a parking lot between Soldier Field and McCormick Place is designated as the site, and the plan gets rolling.
Right now, no one would be surprised if the initiative is rubber stamped by the Chicago Plan Commission and the City Council.
But isn’t this is a topic that merits public education, scrutiny and feedback, especially the legacy issue of building on the lakefront?
The Park District says it’s going to hold a series of public events on the museum plan, and maybe even a forum. But so far there’s only been one hearing, and according to a BGA policy associate who attended, it was mostly presentation, not discourse.
The information vacuum is why the BGA and Union League Club co-sponsored the recent Idea Forum.
Neither organization has an official position on the “Lucas on the Lake” proposal, but we both believe there’s a need for more discussion about transportation options, the possible use of tax dollars, and environmental clean-up concerns — the site is atop a buried garbage dump.
Mayor Emanuel likes to move fast, like the Millenium Falcon, and museum supporters are raring to go, like Jedi, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should be left in the audience.
Citizens need leading roles in this production, so we’re asking the mayor to ensure the rest of the process is open, thorough and inclusive.
May the force of democracy be with us.
Andy Shaw is President and CEO of the Better Government Association.