A better lakefront vision for the Lucas Museum

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McCormick Place East- | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Sometimes the receiver actually catches the Hail Mary pass. Here’s hoping Chicago catches this one.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pushing a new, last-minute solution to where to put George Lucas’ $400 million museum before the movie mogul finally gives up and dumps Chicago for a more cooperative city. Emanuel wants to tear down McCormick Place East, a convention hall that never should have been built on the lakefront anyway, and put the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art there.

The mayor’s proposal is full of question marks about funding, design and commerce, and Lucas had better create a true wonder of a museum if Chicago hands him such precious turf. But the new location would be a big improvement over City Hall’s first proposed site for the museum, a dreary stretch of parking lots south of Soldier Field that lakefront preservationists insist could someday be beautiful green space.

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The mayor’s new plan also would rid the lakefront of a behemoth of building, sometimes derided as Chicago’s Berlin Wall, that destroys the city’s skyline from the east, blocks views of the lake from the west, and physically divides the lakefront — the north from the south — in a subliminally racist way. Or so it has always seemed to us.

What we have here is a chance to upgrade and unify Chicago’s celebrated lakefront. Die-hard architectural preservationists (who think McCormick Place East is a gem) and lakefront protectionists (who oppose almost all new construction) can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

On Friday, the Friends of the Park signaled they could get on board with the idea, or at least might not oppose it, saying they were “in conversation with the city.” That would eliminate the biggest hurdle for City Hall.

We were fine with the mayor’s original plan, to locate the Lucas Museum south of Soldier Field. And we still can’t see how that ugly no-man’s land will ever be transformed into an Eden for birds and bees and picnickers — so better a cool museum. But Friends of the Park has tied the plan up in the courts, even as Lucas grows older and more impatient, and a reuse of the McCormick Place East location represents a definite visionary upgrade. The museum would include a giant green roof and create 12 new acres of lakefront park space.

A museum dedicated to the visual arts would be nicely in linewith the spirit of Chicago’s lakefront protection ordinance, which is to promote nature, recreation and culture. The existing meeting hall for radiology conventions? Not so much.

Among the many questions to be answered, though, are where would new convention space be built to replace what is lost; and would the Chicago Park District, which owns the land, be compensated for some $50 million in lost rent? Emanuel’s proposal calls for expanding McCormick Place by, in part, building a second floor over the street that connects the complex’ two newest convention center buildings. We’d like to see the funding plan for that.

A little historical context:

McCormick Place was always a bad fit for the lakefront, as plenty of people complained when trying to kill the idea in the 1950s. But the Chicago Tribune pushed the enabling legislation through the Illinois General Assembly — because their dearly departed owner and publisher, Col. Robert R. McCormick, who died in 1955, had always insisted Chicago needed a really big convention center.

McCormick Place — hence the name — opened in 1960 and burned to the ground in 1967, at which time lakefront preservationists called for it to be rebuilt somewhere else. But Mayor Richard J. Daley elected to rebuild it on the foundations of the burned building, bigger and more obtrusive than ever.

In 1999, a new Chicago mayor, Richard M. Daley, though loyal to his father’s memory in so many other ways, first called the building Chicago’s “Berlin Wall” and said he hoped it might be torn down some day.

Well, Chicago, here’s our chance.

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