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Emanuel cracks door open to site change for Lucas Museum

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday cracked the door open to the possibility of changing the site of movie mogul George Lucas’ $400 million museum to avoid a protracted legal battle over a mayoral giveaway of 17 acres of  lakefront land near Soldier Field.

One day after a federal judge kept alive a lawsuit filed by Friends of the Park and gave credence to the group’s legal argument, Emanuel was asked whether he would consider a site change.

“That’s a decision that we’re going to work together with George Lucas and Mellody [Hobson, Lucas’ wife]…I’m going to meet and talk to George and Mellody,” the mayor said.

Emanuel engineered the controversial giveaway of prime lakefront land to the project and has defended it ever since as a gift to Chicago that would turn an eyesore into green space.

Friday marked the first time since Chicago snatched the coveted museum from Lucas’ hometown of San Francisco that Emanuel had refused to slam the door on a site change.

The change in tone comes amid concern that Lucas may not have the patience for a costly and protracted legal battle.

“The Lucas Museum and the reason I wanted to make sure when San Francisco did not satisfy George Lucas and Mellody that Chicago went after it [was] because of the educational, cultural and economic benefits,” Emanuel told reporters after a police graduation ceremony at Navy Pier.

“I continue to believe in the fundamentals that the museum— like the [Obama] presidential library — would expand Chicago’s cultural offerings . . . Expand educational opportunity and all the thousands of jobs and economic opportunity that comes from it. And I still believe Chicago should be the place . . . Prior to this, not only San Francisco, Los Angeles, a number of cities wanted it because it’s coveted.”

As an alternative to the parking lot near Soldier Field, Friends of the Park has repeatedly suggested the old Michael Reese Hospital site that has been a financial albatross for Chicago taxpayers.

Last year, Emanuel used $35 million in proceeds from $1.1 billion in borrowing to make the city’s payment on a loan former Mayor Richard M. Daley took out to purchase the hospital site. It was meant for to be used as the Olympic Village, but it was never needed since the city lost its bid.

In rejecting the city’s motion to dismiss the Friends of the Park lawsuit,  U.S. District Judge John W. Darrah lent new credibility to the group’s claim that a 99-year lease “effectively surrenders control” of prime lakefront property to the museum.

Friends of the Park contends, and Darrah agrees, that the museum “is not for the benefit of the public,” but would “promote private and/or commercial interests.”

Darrah refused the city’s request to dismiss the lawsuit despite an 11th-hour fix that Emanuel muscled through the Illinois General Assembly to undercut the lawsuit’s central argument.

Tucked into legal protections for the Obama presidential library was language that also allows construction on formerly submerged land that was once part of Lake Michigan. But Darrah said Friends of the Parks made a compelling argument that the legislation was not sufficient to turn the land over to the museum.

Friends of the Park now expects to depose city officials about the deal. A bench trial in the case has been set for March 14.

Although Darrah’s ruling merely kept the lawsuit alive, speculation abounds that it just might spell the beginning of the end for the project. City Hall sources noted that Lucas had hoped to begin construction in the spring or early summer and that timetable will not be possible, now that the lawsuit is headed to trial.

When Lucas considers the deposition, discovery and legal fees that will now be required, and the very real possibility that Friends of the Parks could actually win, he might just throw in the towel.

Lucas’ hometown of San Francisco and Los Angeles would like nothing more than to snatch the coveted project.

Further complicating the issue for Lucas is the fact that Emanuel, the project’s biggest champion, has been weakened considerably by his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.

When Emanuel engineered the giveaway of prime lakefront land, he was at the height of his political power. He was fully capable of ramming the controversial project through the Chicago Park District Board, the Chicago Plan Commission and the City Council.

Now, Lucas can rightfully question whether Emanuel has the juice to get the project done. That’s especially true now that the legal battle is ramping up during a second term in office that is almost certain to be Emanuel’s last — either because he’s unelectable or because he chooses to call it quits.

“The Lucas people are already impatient. I can’t imagine they’ll have the stomach for this,” a source close to the project said this week.

The privately-financed interactive museum , with a futuristic design by Chinese architect Ma Yansong,  is expected to have up to 300,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space. It will house Lucas’  extensive art collection and movie memorabilia.

Plans also include nearly 5 acres of green space to be divided between a garden, an event prairie, an eco-park and a dune field.

In exchange for losing Soldier Field’s South Parking Lot to the museum, the Chicago Bears bargained hard for a host of marketing and advertising opportunities that could go a long way toward financing stadium upgrades. Sources have said the capital projects were viewed as so essential, the marketing agreement will live on regardless of whether the Lucas Museum is ever built.

The Lucas Museum will also have its own underground parking garage for museum patrons that would provide guaranteed parking, even during Bears games, as well as an outdoor “event prairie” tailgating lawn fit for up to 560 cars next to the museum.

Initially, parking revenue from Lucas Museum visitors would be split between the museum and the Chicago Park District to allow the museum to recoup construction costs. After the museum is made whole, the park district will get all of the money.