UPDATE: LAKEFRONT PRESERVED, LUCAS MUSEUM LOOKS ELSEWHERE
After months of skirmishes in courtrooms, op-ed columns, and private meeting rooms, the battle over the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art came to an end in late June when filmmaker George Lucas announced his decision to pursue building the museum in California rather than Chicago. Friends of the Parks filed a federal lawsuit in November 2014 to block construction of the museum along the lakeshore and preserve Chicago’s public waterfront.
Although Friends of the Parks supported the Lucas Museum coming to Chicago, we contended that the proposed lakefront location south of Soldier Field constituted a tragic misuse of public open space. The selection of that site to build a privately owned museum flew in the face of the Public Trust Doctrine, which requires the welfare of the public over the benefit of one or more individuals when it comes to the use of land created by the infill of Lake Michigan. Furthermore, construction of the museum east of Lake Shore Drive would have been in direct violation of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance. Alternate locations would have brought the same public benefits without permanently diminishing Chicago’s lakefront open space. In 1990, as part of the McCormick Place expansion agreement, the City of Chicago promised to convert the area south of Soldier Field, which is currently a parking lot, into parkland. The Chicago Park District’s own underlying documents refer to that area as a park. However, the City reneged on its commitment to turn that space into parkland and reduce parking spaces on the east side of Lake Shore Drive. Rather than move some of the Bears parking to the west side of the drive, the City found it more beneficial to take advantage of the revenue from that parking lot. As a result, the Bears were given tem-porary permission to use the lot.
When Lucas approached Mayor Rahm Emanuel about locat-ing his museum in Chicago, the mayor offered the Bears parking lot as a possible building site, despite the fact that the area had long ago been designated as park space. The ground lease terms were $10 for 99 years, with two potential subsequent 99-year renewals, for a total of 297 years for $30. This decision to give away a public asset—prime lakefront property designated for public use—was not accompanied by an open public participation process. The City held public meetings during the day at times that were not convenient for residents. In addition, residents were told about the meetings at the last minute. Finally, the City refused to answer questions from the public on the basis that they were involved in the lawsuit brought by the Friends of the Parks.
The City and the Park District filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. However, U.S. District Court Judge John Darrah refused to dismiss the case, noting that the Friends of the Parks had adequately stated their claim. The City’s repeated attempts to keep the case from going to trial actually slowed down the process. When they requested that the process be sped up before Lucas decided to leave Chicago, Judge Darrah reminded them that their legal maneuverings, including their reluctance to turn over discovery documents, had caused the delays. The trial date was originally set for March 2016, but the case never got that far because of all the delays emanating from the City’s tactics. After it became clear that the trial would be rescheduled for November 2016, at the earliest, Lucas announced he would no longer seek to build the museum along Chicago’s lakefront. In the wake of this success, Friends of the Parks is urging the City to honor its long overdue commitment to convert the proposed Lucas Museum site—the current Bears parking lot—into parkland.
The Friends of the Parks’ decision to fight for the preservation of Chicago’s public lakeshore was not an easy one, and it was not without significant financial and political costs. However, we remain steadfast in our commitment to protecting our city’s lakefront for the enjoyment of all. This commitment is rooted in a long history dating back to Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago and A. Montgomery Ward’s tireless efforts to keep Grant Park “forever open, clear, and free.” Furthermore, we do not stand alone in carrying on Chicago’s rich tradition of public parks. In a letter to supporters in May 2016, Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry wrote, “Every day we get calls, letters, and emails from people thanking us for our stand, volunteering to help, and encouraging us to stay strong. We’re clearly tapping into a movement of people who share Friends of the Parks’ commitment to Chicago’s parks and lakefront!”