Our Pledge To You


Rahm plan: Demolish McCormick Place East, put Lucas Museum there

McCormick Place East, shown from Northerly Island, would be demolished to make way for the Lucas Museum under a proposal by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. | Sun-Times file photo

McCormick Place East — denounced by former Mayor Richard M. Daley as a “Berlin Wall” along the lakefront that destroyed the Chicago skyline — would be demolished to make way for movie mogul George Lucas’ museum and a giant green roof, under a mayoral compromise in the works.

The proposal to tear down the massive convention center, rebuilt on the lakefront after the original burned down in 1967, would create 12 acres of lakefront park space.

The Lucas Museum would be built on the south end of the site in a space that currently includes the Arie Crown Theater, sources said. Underground parking for 2,000 vehicles as well as subterranean storage, heating and cooling systems would remain, reducing the overall cost to Lucas.

“Similar to the current parking lot site, we believe McCormick Place would be an excellent location and extend the already world-class museum campus on Chicago’s lakefront to the South Side,” Lucas’ wife, Chicago businesswoman Mellody Hobson, said in a statement.

READ MORE: George Lucas major new donor to Obama presidential library

Hobson said she and her husband “remain hopeful about building the museum in the city of Chicago.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposed compromise also calls for expanding McCormick Place yet again, in part, by building a second floor over the street that connects the two newest convention center buildings.

That would leave McCormick Place with what City Hall contends would be more contiguous floor space than any convention center in the world.

City Hall sources view the McCormick Place plan as the only hope to keep the Lucas Museum in Chicago.

The mayor’s original plan to give the “Star Wars” creator 17 acres of lakefront land near Soldier Field has been embroiled in a legal challenge filed by Friends of the Parks.

The lawsuit was kept alive by a federal judge who has made it clear he sympathizes with the group’s central argument: that a 99-year lease “effectively surrenders control” of prime lakefront property to a museum that is “not for the benefit of the public,” but would “promote private and/or commercial interests.”

Top mayoral aides remain confident the city would ultimately win the case on appeal. But sources said the soon-to-be 72-year-old Lucas is not prepared to wait years to begin construction of the legacy project he is determined to complete and enjoy in his lifetime.

He would sooner accept an offer from Los Angeles or his hometown of San Francisco.

That’s the backdrop for Emanuel’s Hail Mary pass that calls for the demolition of the building known as Lakeside Center.

Although the same legal issues could be raised about that site, sources said the mayor is hoping that by removing an eyesore of a building and opening up 12 new acres of green space, he can negotiate a settlement with Friends of the Park that averts a legal challenge.

“There’s a building on that site already. Not only would we be removing a building. We’d be creating a ton of green space,” said a source familiar with the plan.

“This plan would change the lakefront for the better. It would be much more green and much more open.”

But several sources cautioned that there are a “lot of moving parts” to the deal, including replacing all of the convention floor space lost to avoid losing two huge manufacturing shows that utilize McCormick Place East.

Still unresolved is how the convention center expansion would be financed when the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority has already used up its excess bonding capacity to build a new hotel and a basketball arena for DePaul University that would double as an “event center” for McCormick Place.

Also unclear is whether the Chicago Park District, which owns the land, would be compensated for lost revenue if and when Lakeside Center is demolished.

A lease that runs through 2042 would net the park district roughly $50 million with an escalating schedule of payments that ranges from $871,000 this year to $3.2 million in the final year of the agreement, records show.

If the park district is not made whole, that would violate Emanuel’s pledge to build the project with no contribution from beleaguered Chicago taxpayers.

“It’s a very complicated deal. No pieces would get done without the entire deal getting done,” said a source familiar with the delicate negotiations.

The first clue about behind-the-scenes maneuvering to offer McCormick Place East as an alternative site for the museum that will house Lucas’ formidable collection of artwork and movie-making memorabilia came two weeks ago.

That’s when the Chicago Sun-Times lifted the veil on three recent weeks of Emanuel’s daily schedule. It showed that McPier chief Lori Healey was part of a March 17 “museum update” meeting, apparently held to discuss the way forward for the Lucas Museum.

Also in attendance were former mayoral senior adviser David Spielfogel, his replacement, Mike Rendina, policy chief Michael Negron, Chief Operating Officer Joe Deal and Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton.

The week before that meeting, Emanuel held a private meeting at Ariel Investments, 200 E. Randolph. The schedule didn’t show its purpose. But it might have been one of the private meetings the mayor has held with Lucas and his wife, Ariel executive Hobson, in an attempt to persuade the couple to consider an alternative site.

Last month, Emanuel told reporters that Lucas has his “heart set” on building the museum on the original site near Soldier Field. As a result, the mayor said he was afraid Chicago would lose the coveted prize.

Emanuel said then that Lucas’ hometown of San Francisco “coughed it up” after a federal panel rejected the picturesque Presidio site that was Lucas’ top choice, and he feared that Chicago was about to do the same.

“We have a lawsuit. Other cities are not going to wait for that lawsuit to play itself out. We have that as a challenge for us,” the mayor said then.

“This is a family that’s willing to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to fulfill our vision as a city,” he said. “I just hope that, as the other cities compete, that we do not lose a tremendous charitable donation to the city’s cultural landscape . . . Other cities now are competing for their hearts and their resources . . . We don’t stand alone. In the past, it was San Francisco’s to lose, and they lost it. I do not want to lose this for Chicago. My goal is to keep it here, but there are other cities competing for it now.”

Weeks after opening the door to a site change, Emanuel hinted strongly that his efforts to persuade Lucas and Hobson to consider another site had either failed or were not going particularly well.

“It’s only human to have your heart kind of set on something, given that a task force made a recommendation and they liked it,” Emanuel said.

Friends of the Parks has urged Lucas to consider building his museum at the old Michael Reese Hospital site, acquired by the city for an Olympic Village that never materialized, or on the west side of Lake Shore Drive on a deck above rail yards, similar to the one that holds Millennium Park.

Daley long bemoaned McCormick Place being rebuilt on the lakefront after the original burned down.

In 1999, Daley went so far as to suggest tearing it down and rebuilding it west of the lakefront. He argued then that the building “ruined the skyline” and was too costly to maintain.

“Eventually, they have to look at [demolition] because when you look at our beautiful walkway and skyline — bing — that’s like the Berlin Wall,” he said.

Lakeside Center has long been viewed as a possible site for a Chicago casino because it has a built-in convention audience, an express bus lane linking it to downtown hotels and restaurants, and its own built-in theater.