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Emanuel confident he'll win court fight over Lucas museum

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday he’s confident his plan to give movie mogul George Lucas free lakefront land to build an interactive museum will survive a court challenge from lakefront protectionists.

“We feel very comfortable from a legal perspective….That’s why you’re paying for that high-priced advice up on the 10th-floor…You always check to make sure you’re on solid legal ground. Anything we’ve done…we do with the Law Department sitting there,” the mayor said.

“[Corporation] Counsel’s been there the whole way. And we think we’ve come up with, what is a sound process. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be taking the steps we’re taking . . . It’s an incredible addition to have that type of educational and cultural opportunity, let alone the economic development. And it is done in a way — in fact the Sun-Times editorial page noted — this is consistent with the lake protection act that exists.”

Cassandra Francis, president and CEO of Friends of the Parks, said Wednesday she’s prepared to do “what it takes” to block Lucas from building along the lakefront.

“If that means a lawsuit, we are prepared to file a lawsuit,” she said.

“The grounds will be it’s in contradiction and violation of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. It is new private development east of Lake Shore Drive. It’s currently public open space. The public controls how that site is accessed. That will no longer be the case. At some point at night, it’ll get locked up. That to me says private development. You’ll have to pay to get in. There will be days that are free, but that is not open clear and free for use of the public.”

Francis said she is also wary of the mayor’s claim that there will be no public subsidy for the museum beyond the free land.

She noted that the parking lots now functioned as “engineered barriers for the containment of contaminated soil underneath” left behind from the Soldier Field renovation project that will be costly to remove.

It will also be a “very expensive proposition” to move 3,000 parking spaces underground, at a cost of $45,000-a-space, especially considering the “high-water table” that will require “permanent de-watering,” she said.

“That eats up close to half of his $300 million budget for the building,” she said.

“No one knows what the costs are. I am very concerned….that the public will need to bear some of these costs.”

That sets the stage for a legal and political donnybrook akin to the one that preceded former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s ill-fated plan to build a new Children’s Museum in Grant Park.

Former Chicago Plan Commission Chairman Reuben Hedlund opposed the Children’s Museum project. But he’s all for the idea of giving Lucas the 17-acre, 750,000-square-foot site between Soldier Field and McCormick Place East for $1-a-year in a leasing arrangement similar to the city’s other lakefront museums.

“That parking lot has been a real liability for the city for a long time. We need to do something more inventive there,” Hedlund said Wednesday.

As for the threatened court fight, Hedlund said he’s confident Emanuel would win it.

“It’s not `nothing east of Lake Shore Drive.’ It no private development east of Lake Shore Drive. The question is, whether this is a private development, as opposed to privately-financed,” he said.

“Are you going to build hotels on Northerly Island? No. Private development means in the traditional sense. Hotels, restaurants. Can it be argued this is a private development? Sure. But I would argue this is not a private development in the sense that phrase was meant when [the lakefront plan] passed the City Council. This is a gratuitous, not-for-profit development that will go through the process and I think it will succeed.”

All but a handful of aldermen appear to support Emanuel’s plan. Notable exceptions are Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who’s mulling a race for mayor, and his Progressive Caucus colleague Scott Waguespack (32nd).

“It’s like the Children’s Museum. There’s this push to get the lakefront property all the time. I don’t see why the vision of City Hall can’t be out in the neighborhoods or further out from downtown. There’s plenty of other places,” Waguespack said Wednesday.

The alderman was not moved by Lucas’ demand to be near water.

“Are we just giving him special dispensation because he wants water? If we’re breaking this law about putting this on the lake and park land, we shouldn’t be doing it,” he said.

Asked whether he believes opponents can succeed in blocking the Lucas museum, Waguespack said, “They were able to do a pretty good number on the children’s museum trying to force that out of there. Advocacy for this issue will be just as intense.”

If Emanuel is concerned about a potentially ugly fight in the run-up to the Feb. 24 election, he wasn’t showing it Wednesday.

Chicago’s ultra-competitive mayor was too busy basking in the glow of his triumph over San Francisco and Los Angeles, his competitors for the Lucas museum prize.

“Imagine how San Francisco and L.A. feel today and look at the quotes by their respective mayors,” the mayor said.

“We will have a new museum that other cities wanted that they picked Chicago to do with all of that opportunity. Other cities don’t have it. We’ll have it.”

As he has from the beginning, Emanuel stressed that there would be “no taxpayer support” for the Lucas Museum over and above the free land he dismissed as a great trade-off because it would replace 17 acres of ugly surface parking lots with green space, thanks to an underground parking garage that would be built at Lucas’ expense.

But the mayor acknowledged that the Lucas museum would “serve as a catalyst” for a host of transportation improvements to unclog a transportation bottleneck caused by the concentration of museums, conventions, concerts, sporting and special events in one lakefront location.

According to the mayoral task force that chose the site, those projects include: extending bus rapid transit to the museum campus; 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; adding bike paths; upgrading 31st Street; adding water access via Burnham Harbor and upgrading the 18th Street entrance and exits to McCormick Place and the museum campus as well as the Roosevelt Road interchange.

“I’m not going to allow you to play a Catch-22. [Lucas is] going to make the contribution with no taxpayer support. Does that provide us the opporutnity to think about other investments that would open up all four [museum] campuses? We’re gonna look at that. That’s what the task force was for,” the mayor said.

“You have Northerly Island there. You have three other museum campuses. And any transportation you do doesn’t benefit [Lucas]. It benefits the entire campus. Which I will remind you is why each of the presidents of the other museums have been not only receptive, very supportive. The building process…is on their dime. Not on taxpayers….The contribution to build the museum? George Lucas. Staffing it and the job opportunties, the economic opportunities? George Lucas and Mellody Hobson. Direct incentives? No. That’s different.”