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Site over rail yards pushed for Lucas Museum

Friends of the Parks on Wednesday urged movie mogul George Lucas to consider building his $400 million museum on the west side of Lake Shore Drive on a deck above rail yards similar to the way Millennium Park was built.

“If it makes sense to build a parking garage on that site, why not just build the whole campus there. It’s not part of the public trust doctrine. It’s not affected by that. It’s on the west side of Lake Shore Drive. Why not just put it there and all of this trouble would go away?” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks.

“It still allows for the museum to have a prominent place. It has all the same benefits to the economy. It’s similarly accessible. It just doesn’t take public trust land. We would not have legal recourse, nor would we pursue a lawsuit.”

Irizarry acknowledged that the need to build a deck above rail yards would increase the cost of the legacy project and complicate the logistics. But she said, “Mr. Lucas is a billionaire. He could afford it.”

Irizarry urged Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Lucas to consider the site change after a federal judge warned City Hall of the risk it would take by breaking ground early — especially if it ultimately loses a court battle over the museum’s location.

“Whatever you’ve done is going to have to be undone at cost to somebody other than the plaintiffs,” U.S. District Judge John Darrah said Wednesday.

The judge also stressed he is keeping an “open mind” about the case as lawyers for the city and Friends of the Parks appeared in his courtroom for a brief procedural hearing. They did so a day after the city warned in court filings that a protracted court fight over the museum “now puts the entire project at risk.”

City Hall lawyer Brian Sieve told the judge the museum has begun to “consider other options and other cities that it may locate to.”

Darrah said he would decide by April 21 whether to grant the city’s request to lift an order barring work from starting at the proposed site of the museum, a parking lot south of Soldier Field. Meanwhile, the judge suggested the two sides try to agree on low-cost preliminary steps the city may take while the lawsuit plays out.

Chicago Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey denied after the hearing Wednesday that taxpayers would be on the hook if work began early and the city ultimately lost the case.

Irizarry said she’s at least willing to listen if there is “some preliminary work they have in mind.” But she can’t imagine what that might be.

“We don’t think the city should spend any tax dollars period. It could be a total waste. It’s not in the best interest of taxpayers to start to construct something that would just have to be torn down,” she said.

Until Wednesday, Friends of the Park had focused most of its attention on the old Michael Reese Hospital site that former Mayor Richard M. Daley bought for $91 million to house an Olympic Village before Chicago’s first-round flameout in the 2016 Olympic sweepstakes.

Both the Michael Reese and the Millennium Park-style development over Metra tracks were among 57 sites considered by the dozen-member site selection committee handpicked by Emanuel to choose a site for the museum where Lucas plans to house his formidable collection of artwork and movie-making memorabilia.

Neither site made the list of five finalists. The Michael Reese site was nixed because it didn’t comply with Emanuel’s demand for a site that “did not require taxpayer expense to prepare” and it did not meet Lucas’ demand to be near the lake. The rail yards were disqualified because of the cost of building a deck.

Earlier this week, Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times that other cities have tried to attract the Lucas museum since a federal judge kept alive a lawsuit challenging the lakefront site near Soldier Field.

Emanuel said he and his top aides have had “a lot of conversations” with Lucas and his wife, Chicago businesswoman Mellody Hobson, in the two weeks since Darrah sided with Friends of the Park and rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the case.

The mayor hedged when asked whether the Star Wars creator was open to a site change.

“What I do know is that Chicago is a priority for them. But that doesn’t mean other cities haven’t come calling,” the mayor said.

Asked again whether Lucas and Hobson were open to changing sites, Emanuel said he was “not going to speak for” the power couple.

The mayor bobbed and weaved when asked whether he would forge ahead in court, pursue a site change or do both simultaneously.

“What I’m going to do is work tirelessly to keep it in Chicago,” he said.

“San Francisco coughed up the ball. We grabbed it. … There’s a tremendous educational, cultural and economic gain for the city. … I’m glad it’s not in Los Angeles. I’m glad it’s in Chicago. I’m going to keep working on trying to keep it here. But as you know, other cities are very interested.”