Lucas museum means a new hope for transit upgrades, panel vows

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to offer movie mogul George Lucas free lakefront land to build a new interactive museum could “serve as a catalyst” for a host of transportation improvements to Chicago’s iconic museum campus.

After recommending that the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum be built on the south and Waldron parking lots between Soldier Field and McCormick Place East, Emanuel’s handpicked site selection committee laid out the enticing transportation possibilities.

Not only would 17 acres of ugly surface parking lots be moved underground at the movie mogul’s expense and replaced by green space — but the museum could open the door to a host of “ambitious enhancements” tailor-made to unclog a transportation bottleneck caused by the concentration of museums, conventions, concerts, sporting and special events in one lakefront location. They include:

◆ Extending bus rapid transit to the museum campus to “speed routes” that begin at Union Station and go through downtown.

◆ Creating a “dedicated trolley service” to and from the Loop and West Loop commuter rail stations.

◆ Building a “pedestrian connection” from the Lucas museum to Northerly Island — either a bridge or a “mid-harbor crossing that prioritizes pedestrians, cyclist and non-motorized transit” — to reduce traffic volumes on the few roadways that connect Northerly Island to the museum campus.

◆ Adding bike paths around the museum campus.

◆ Upgrading 31st Street to handle higher traffic volumes.

◆ Adding water access via Burnham Harbor and a connection to the Lake Michigan Water Trail.

◆ Upgrading the 18th Street entrance and exits to McCormick Place and the museum campus as well as the Roosevelt Road interchange.

The site selection committee also considered a less costly tier of improvements.

They include: reconfiguring the McCormick Place busway to accommodate CTA buses and allow six express bus routes to avoid traffic congestion on Lake Shore Drive; establishing a special CTA bus route from the Lucas Museum to the downtown area or re-routing the CTA’s No. 10 Museum of Science and Industry bus and enhancing the 18th Street Metra stop, now a mere platform, into a “fully-developed station that could be added as a “regular stop.”

Davis Spielfogel, senior advisor to the mayor, was asked how those transportation improvements would be financed.

“Some of them are changes to speed traffic that will naturally happen with a new development paid for by the developer. Some are a bus that already goes by there and will make an extra stop. We could work with Metra to increase stops. There are a lot of options,” he said.

For now, at least, Emanuel is promising not to devote taxpayers money to a museum that will house Lucas’ formidable collection of artwork and film-making memorabilia if Chicago wins a heated competition with Lucas’ home town of San Francisco.

Spielfogel said the Star Wars creator, who is married to Chicago businesswoman Mellody Hobson, will be offered a long-term lease for $1-a-year. But there will be no taxpayer subsidy, unlike the $30 million in annual support the Chicago Park District provides for 11 other museums on park land.

One day after the Chicago Sun-Times disclosed the museum campus site, Emanuel embraced the recommendation and began the formidable task of selling Chicago on the controversial idea of giving away lakefront park land.

“Their recommendation is very thoughtful and a fitting site for the type of museum and educational partner Chicago is looking for. And it would complete our museum campus, which is world-class and brings people from all over the world,” the mayor said.

“I fully endorse the recommendation…. It’s a win-win for Chicago, for our neighborhoods and for George and Mellody Lucas to see Chicago as their home for this great museum. And it will help us drive the type of tourism and convention industry that we want to see — not just hitting goals, but making sure Chicago is on every tourist worldwide’s destination because of that museum.”

RELATED: ‘Star Wars’ Stormtroopers by the lake? Think hard on Lucas plan

Lakefront projects are always controversial and this one is no different.

Friends of the Park said it welcomes the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum in Chicago, but not on “lakefront public open space.”

That’s the same argument made during the Battle Royal over former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s ill-fated plan to build a new Children’s Museum in Grant Park. 

“The Lakefront Protection Ordinance specifically states that, ‘In no instance will further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive,’ “ Friends of the Park President Cassandra Francis said in a news release. 

“It is clear that the siting of the Lucas Museum in this lakefront location contradicts our prior city visionaries’ goal of continuous public open space along the lakefront.” 

Board Chair Lauren Moltz noted that while the proposed site is now a parking lot, it could some day be converted to park land. 

“Once a building is in place, it is forever precluded from being public open space. This is not a new issue given Friends of the Parks’ mission and extensive public opposition to the proposed siting of the Chicago Children’s Museum in Grant Park. It is a slippery slope,” Moltz was quoted as saying.

Sources said thousands of parking spaces used by Bears fans attending games at Soldier Field would be moved underground to garages built by Lucas.

“It’s a big plot of land. Working with the Lucas team, we would be sure there is space for tailgating during those eight days a year,” Spielfogel said.

With those assurances, the Bears released a statement that makes it clear the team has no intention of fighting a proposal they learned about, only after reading the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Mayor Emanuel called us to stress his commitment to working together to create a win-win situation for everyone,” the statement said.

“Continuing to improve the Soldier Field experience for Bears fans and the many others who attend events throughout the year remains our priority.  We look forward to collaborating to achieve both goals. We appreciate the relationship we have with the mayor’s office and the Chicago Park District. We love Chicago and a museum of this caliber would be a great addition to the city.”

Gary Johnson, president of both the Chicago History Museum and Museums in the Park, argued that having a cutting edge attraction that will stir the imagination of a whole new generation of museum-goers will be good for all of Chicago’s museums.

“I’m hoping that having it here [on the lakefront] and having it in Chicago will attract more visitors.”

Anything that is world-class that attracts peoples’ attention will help them discover all of the riches Chicago has to over. This museum will become another big reason for people to check us out,” he said.

As for the decision to give away lakefront land, Johnson said, “This is a shabby looking parking lot at the moment. Here, there will be underground parking, which is a plus. It’ll be a big improvement. It’s a better use of lakefront land than our current use. And although it’s part of the great museum campus, it’s not clustered right next to the other museums. That’s helpful.”

Polk Brothers Foundation CEO Gillian Darlow, who co-chaired the site selection committee, said there’s a reason why the museum campus site emerged from a field that included four other finalists: Jackson Park; Washington Park; Northerly Island and the south end of Grant Park that houses the Lollapalooza music festival.

It’s the best Chicago has to offer — and it’s about to get even better.

“While we think of the museum campus as a beautiful green space and much of it is, this particular area is all asphalt and hard space. It’s strikingly unattractive,” she said.

“The really wonderful thing about this site is that it would allow us to create green space where there isn’t any.”

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