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Friends of Parks: Won’t drop suit, still opposed to Lucas on lake

A rendering of what the Lucas Museum would look like at a proposed site at McCormick Place East.

A rendering of what the Lucas Museum would look like at a proposed site at McCormick Place East.

The battle over the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art took several twists and turns on Friday.

A day after the Sun-Times reported that Mayor Rahm Emanuel was making a last-ditch effort to get Friends of the Parks to drop its opposition to building the museum on the lakefront, word came that the group was prepared to do just that.

A highly placed source told the Sun-Times’ Michael Sneed that the parks group’s executive board actually had voted Wednesday to restart negotiations with the city and to “move forward with the Lucas Museum” and support building it at McCormick Place.

But Friends of the Parks quickly issued a written statement disputing that version of events.

RELATED: Emanuel offers prize if parks group gives up museum fight

“Our board remains fully united on the preservation of our lakefront and ensuring that the public trust doctrine is not ignored,” read the statement, issued by Friends of the Parks Board President Lauren Moltz and Executive Director Juanita Irizarry.

“We do believe that the Lucas Museum has a place in Chicago for all to enjoy, but not at the expense of one our most precious public resources. We have always said we were open to discussions. Anything else you hear is rumor and speculation. We are not dropping the lawsuit.”

Sneed had been told the board asked Moltz to move forward on a three-pronged plan that could include dropping the group’s lawsuit against the city in their lakefront museum campus battle and proceeding with building movie mogul George Lucas’ proposed interactive museum at McCormick Place. That alternative site, first proposed by Emanuel, would involve tearing down most of the old Lakeside Center.

The plan also would include a commitment from the city to “reaffirm its desire to uphold its Lakeside Protection ordinance,” the source said.

“Look, 75 percent of the 16-man FOP board voted to get things moving,” said the source.

“The FOP was right about protecting the lakefront — but why pass up an opportunity to fix a problem at McCormick Place?” the source added. “So the board decided to move forward and get out in front of this situation.”

Sources later Friday told the Sun-Times that the board was open to discussions with the city about either site — the one originally proposed, near Soldier Field, as well as McCormick Place, which is the less-likely selection because of multiple political factors.

Either way, Tom Geoghegan, an attorney representing Friends of the Parks, was unequivocal when contacted Friday morning: The legal battle over any lakefront site drags on.

“We’re not dropping the lawsuit. We feel good about our chances. I can’t talk to you about what happened at a meeting. I wasn’t there and to the extent I was there, it’s attorney-client privilege. But, our external position hasn’t changed,” Geoghegan said.

“I would not read anything in particular into this gossip being parlayed around. What matters is our public position and that is what I have just set out to you. We’re continuing the lawsuit. We believe in our lawsuit. That’s where we are.”

Board member Fred Bates refused to discuss this week’s vote.

“What we did was confidential with attorneys present and it’s going to stay that way. I’m not going to respond to what we did,” Bates said.

But, he stressed, “Nobody has changed their mind. It is wrong to say that.”

Bates had said earlier this week that the group’s board was deeply divided over the Lucas Museum issue but “always open to dialogue.”

That dialogue clearly seemed to include the option that the Sun-Times was first to report late Thursday – that Emanuel was trying to persuade the Friends of the Parks board to drop its’ lawsuit that’s blocked construction of the Lucas Museum near Soldier Field by offering to support another project the group has long wanted: extending public access to Lake Michigan.

The group’s “Last Four Miles” plan, unveiled in 2009, had envisioned adding 525 acres of lakefront parkland and extending lake access to Lake Michigan from the Evanston border south all the way to the Indiana border.

On Friday, Emanuel alluded to that offer as he tip-toed around the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that, he can only hope, will keep the Lucas’ $743 million legacy project in Chicago.

The mayor was careful about what he said, in part, because Friends of the Parks has been so mercurial and elusive a negotiating partner.

On several occasions, Emanuel thought he had a deal with parks advocacy group, only to have Irizarry publicly declare the group’s intention to wage a court battle against any lakefront site — on Soldier Field’s south parking lot, the site of McCormick Place East or any other lakefront site — in a move City Hall viewed as a political double-cross.

Quoting one of his favorite expressions from Henry Kissinger, the mayor said, “Does anybody have any questions for my answers? That’s where we’ll start.”

Turning serious, the mayor alluded to the offer to at least get started on the “Last Four Miles,” an ambitious plan that could take 20 years to complete.

“All of us want to create a situation in the city of Chicago, what I refer to as a win-win. Those who are committed to open lands and open spaces are also people who enjoy museums. And people who enjoy museums and cultural spaces also enjoy open space,” Emanuel said.

“I want to create … a way to enrich the city economically, educationally and culturally with a museum and also make it part of the overall effort of a city that has a unique open space and commitment to its lakefront, which all these guests who are here will stand in awe,” the mayor said.

Emanuel noted that Chicago will play host this weekend to its “first-ever” America’s Cup qualifying race.

“Our lake is special. Our lakefront is special. Our parks are special. … You know my commitment to that as part of our ‘Building on Burnham’ plan. I’m committed to try to find a way that all of us in this city who love this city — [including] people of different views — can work together and have a situation where Chicago’s cultural plans and open space, which are part of who we are as a city, work together in enriching the city economically, culturally and educational.”

The reporters then asked the mayor three questions: whether he had offered to fund the “Last Four Miles”; whether Friends of the Park had reversed itself and whether the museum would be built on the original site near Soldier Field.

Emanuel ignored all of those questions.

But any support the parks group may or may not have for the McCormick Place site may be moot, regardless.

If the Lucas Museum is ultimately built on Chicago’s lakefront, it will almost certain be on the original site on Soldier Field’s south parking lot, sources said Friday.

That’s because the mayor’s back-up plan to tear down the above-ground portion of McCormick Place East and build the museum on a portion of the site that includes the Arie Crown Theater is too expensive and fraught with political danger. It calls for replacing the lost convention space by building a $500 million McCormick Place expansion over Martin Luther King Drive.

The complex and controversial plan would require Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Democratic legislative leaders and an Illinois General Assembly embroiled in a marathon budget stalemate to extend the life of five tourism taxes and authorize $1.2 billion in new borrowing for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

Rauner has already spoken disparagingly about that deal. And that was before lawmakers adjourned their spring session without a budget or a stand-alone bill to fund public schools, prompting Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s to drop the state’s bond rating.

At a time when the marathon state budget stalemate has cut off funding to vital social services, state universities and college scholarships to needy students, it would be awfully tough to ask the Illinois General Assembly to authorize $1.2 billion in new borrowing for a Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority that maxed out its credit card to build a new hotel and a basketball arena for DePaul University that would double as an “event center” for McCormick Place.

State lawmakers, most of whom are seeking re-election, would also be required to raise five tourism taxes. Two of the levies — of 2 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively — apply to Chicago hotel rooms. The other taxes are on restaurants, rental cars and ground transportation at O’Hare and Midway airports. All of those taxes were used to bankroll previous McCormick Place expansions.

Two of those tax hikes would be on Chicago hotel rooms now taxed at a rate of 17.4 percent, thanks to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s decision to tack on an additional 1 percent.

That’s compared to 12 percent for Las Vegas and 12.5 percent for Orlando, Chicago’s two biggest rivals for convention business.

One of those hotel tax hikes — the 2 percent that financed construction of U.S. Cellular Field — is supposed to expire in 2033 when stadium bonds are paid off.

Instead, the General Assembly would be required to transfer that increase from the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority to McPier and extend the levy until 2066 to be paid by future generations.

In response to Sun-Times inquiries, mayoral spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier had put out a written statement earlier this week that alluded to intermediaries but didn’t mention the “Last Four Miles Plan.”

“A number of groups in the city have expressed a high degree of interest in making sure Chicago does not lose the Lucas Museum and its tremendous economic, educational and cultural benefits,” Breymaier said then. “Those groups have gotten involved to try to find a way to ensure the museum and the opportunities it would create stay in Chicago.”