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Burke to sit out Lucas museum debate to avoid conflict

The City Council’s most powerful alderman will sit out the legislative debate on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to give movie mogul George Lucas free lakefront land to build an interactive museum to avoid a conflict posed by a threatened court challenge.

Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee, is the husband of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.

If Friends of the Park follows through on its threat to file a lawsuit blocking the project, the appeal could go all the way to the state Supreme Court.

With that possibility in mind, Burke informed Emanuel this week that he intends to take a pass on the City Council debate to avoid a conflict posed by a protracted court challenge, according to Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader.

“Burke could vote, but then Anne would have to recuse herself. It’s smarter if Ald. Burke recuses himself” before it even gets to that point, O’Connor said Thursday.

Burke could not be reached for comment. In an emailed statement Thursday night, his family wrote: “Late this afternoon, Ald. Edward Burke was admitted into a local hospital where he underwent routine prostate surgery. We are happy to relay that his surgery was a success. . . . Alderman Burke is in very good spirits and looks forward to resuming his regular schedule soon.”

Emanuel wants to build the museum that will house Lucas’ formidable collection of artwork and filmmaking memorabilia on the south and Waldron parking lots between Soldier Field and McCormick Place East.

He has offered the Star Wars creator the 17-acre site for $1 a year in a long-term leasing arrangement similar to the city’s 11 other lakefront museums.

Friends of the Park calls that a clear violation of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance and the 1973 Lakefront Plan of Chicago that states, “In no instance will further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive.”

But Chicago Park District General Counsel Tim King argued Thursday that, although Lucas plans to use his filmmaking 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. Butin 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.

“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 ban on private development east of Lake Shore Drive.

“Absolutely not. This is a common practice with all the other lakefront museums back to the beginning of time and well in keeping with the history of Chicago,” he said.

“The Shedd Aquarium has no legal rights to sub-lease or ‘alienate’ the property. However, from a practical, optical, day-to-day, non-legal standpoint, they enjoy ‘quiet enjoyment.’ They can do whatever they want without violating the law. They have functions. They maintain their own schedule. They control and operate the building. They have the keys completely free from interference.”

Cassandra Francis, president and CEO of Friends of the Parks, argued this week that building the Lucas museum on the lakefront is “in contradiction and violation of” the Lakefront Protection Ordinance because it’s “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,” she said.

Francis said she also was wary of Emanuel’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.”

In January 2011, Anne Burke joined in a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court decision that decided a contentious residency challenge in Emanuel’s favor.

Anne Burke and Charles Freeman, both Illinois Appellate Court alums, wrote a separate opinion criticizing their Illinois Supreme Court colleagues for their harsh criticism of an Appellate Court ruling just days before that went against Emanuel, briefly throwing the mayoral race into turmoil.