Emanuel wants plan to ease museum campus bottleneck

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel has asked policy experts and lakefront stakeholders to propose “transportation enhancements” to ease a museum campus bottleneck that will get worse with construction of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

The site selection committee that chose to give movie-mogul George Lucas 17 acres of free lakefront land between Soldier Field and McCormick Place East has already laid out the enticing possibilities.

They 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.

◆ Adding bike paths.

◆ Upgrading 31st Street.

◆ Offering water access via Burnham Harbor.

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

The smorgasbord of transportation improvements also includes an idea that Lucas has agreed to bankroll and famed Chicago architect Jeanne Gang has been hired to design: a pedestrian bridge linking the Lucas museum to Northerly Island.

Now, Emanuel’s chief operating officer Joe Deal and Metropolitan Planning Council President Mary Sue Barrett will co-chair a task force to consider those options and more over the next 90 days.

Emanuel has emphasized repeatedly there would be “no taxpayer support” for the Lucas project over and above the free land he has 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 built at Lucas’ expense.

But the “no-taxpayer-support” pledge does not extend to unclogging the transportation bottleneck caused by the concentration of museums, conventions, concerts, sporting and special events in one lakefront location.

“The [pedestrian] bridge was a big component of it. The Lucas Museum has agreed to fund that. But, we need to find other enhancements for all other forms of transportation,” David Spielfogel, senior adviser to the mayor, said Thursday.

“There are CTA buses that go to the museum campus, but there’s a legitimate question whether they go to the right places and have the right frequency. People pay to get on the bus. In some cases, those improvements could be self-funded. There are also good suggestions about improving access that don’t cost anything or have very little cost.”

Barrett, who once served as former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s policy chief, could not be reached for comment.

Peter Skosey, executive vice-president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, said his boss has her work cut out.

“If you are accessing the museum campus by car, there’s one route in, minimal parking and not enough space to build all the parking that’s demanded. Even accessing it by foot is a challenge. After a Soldier Field concert, that pedestrian underpass at Lake Shore Drive is packed,” Skosey said.

“It’s an important challenge. It warrants some attention and some resources. Ideally, we come up with a solution that costs the least and has the greatest impact.”

Friends of the Parks President Cassandra Francis has threatened to file a lawsuit to stop the Lucas museum; she calls it a clear violation of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance and 1973 Lakefront Plan of Chicago that prohibits  “further private development east of Lake Shore Drive.”

On Thursday, Francis did say that she loves the “wonderful transportation ideas” suggested by the site selection committee, adding: “You may need all of them just to serve what currently exists on the lakefront site.”

But, Francis urged the mayor and Lucas to avert a legal challenge by considering alternative sites, including the truck staging area for McCormick Place.

“It would extend the museum campus to the south to where the Bronzeville community and Michael Reese Hospital, a prime city redevelopment parcel, could benefit from this added activity and not just cause controversy,” Francis said.

“If they have these amazing brains working on this [lakefront] site, why not take this energy and look at the benefits of an alternative site? Why add more controversy to a site that already has significant congestion? All of these wonderful transportation improvements could just be continued a half mile further south and it enjoys a much better lake view.”

Skosey noted that the museum campus bottleneck has been an “issue for years” and studied before.

A 1996 report by McDonough Association gave birth to the lakefront busway and free trolleys to the museum campus and Navy Pier. The report also suggested a low-wattage radio station to broadcast traffic updates and a multi-modal transportation center on the site that now includes Millennium Park.

Emanuel’s 21-member transportation task force  will include representatives from the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Adler Planetarium, Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and the Chicago Bears as well as community stakeholders and government agencies.

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