Movie producer George Lucas is actively searching for a new city for his multimillion-dollar museum, while he is embroiled in an increasingly bitter battle with an environmental watchdog determined to resist any building on Chicago’s lakefront.
Lucas, allied with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and, among others, a combative activist priest, wants to build his $743-million Lucas Museum of Narrative Art on the largely protected lakefront.
Emanuel filed a motion in an appeals court on Wednesday to overturn a lower court ruling barring construction at the proposed site.
Watchdog Friends of the Park had sued, arguing Lucas cannot build on the land because a 1973 city ordinance states private construction is barred east of Lake Shore Drive, a main artery that runs parallel to the lake.
That position, repeated this week in various statements and court filings, prompted the Star Wars creator’s wife, financial executive Mellody Hobson, to unload on the group, and warn they are looking outside the city.
“From the beginning, this process has been co-opted and hijacked by a small special-interest group,” Hobson said.
“While they claim to be a ‘strong steward of Chicago and a partner to its progress,’ their actions and decision rob our state of more than $2 billion in economic benefits, thousands of jobs and countless educational opportunities for children and adults alike.”
She said the couple is “seriously pursuing locations outside of Chicago.”
The museum was originally planned to be built on a car park, one used by tailgating Chicago Bears, and other fans attending Soldier Field.
Friends of the Parks filed a federal lawsuit. A judge ruled the case had merit and that no construction can take place while it proceeds.
Following that ruling, a new plan was drawn up, and announced in late April. It was proposed to demolish a much maligned Lakeside Convention Center, and replace it with the museum, adding a further 12 acres of green space. But that plan includes the cash-strapped city borrowing $1.2 billion to replace the center.
Then, on Monday, the city filed a motion to stay the lawsuit while it took advice on the tax implications of building on the second-choice site.
The Friends of the Parks agreed with the motion to pause, only for the city to then withdraw the motion. The parks group then announced it was opposed to any building on the lakefront, which led to Hobson's angry statement.
On Wednesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the city's appeal.
Juanita Irizarry, Friends of the Park's executive director, said the city's alternative proposal was not acceptable, and argues the museum should be built on the west side of the drive.
"We maintain there should not be development on the lakefront,” Irizarry told the Chicago Tribune. "It calls for us to choose between two priorities: parkland and saving the lakefront. While we would love more parkland, we don’t want to sell out our lakefront."
That prompted Rev. Michael Pfleger to enter the fray. He is an outspoken, often combative priest, who ministers to a deprived African-American southside community, one he believes will benefit from the development.
"This latest move by 'Friends of the Parks' makes it clear that green space is not their primary motive. Rather, they are a group of elitist individuals who want control of the lakefront," Pfleger said in a statement Tuesday.
“They are not friends of the park, not friends of those who would benefit from jobs in construction and operation, and certainly not friends of the millions of children of all ages who would benefit from this museum."
Emanuel said Wednesday, "No, I think the way I see this is the Lucas Museum is going to be built. The question to us is whether it's going to be built in Chicago or L.A.”
This row has roots in the city’s unique architectural history, and the vision of planners more than 100 years ago.
“The Lakefront by right belongs to the people," wrote one, Daniel Burnham, in 1909. "Not a foot of its shores should be appropriated to the exclusion of the people.”
That advice was largely followed, though Soldier Field, three museums, the convention center and a single high rise condo building were constructed close to the lake shore.
The construction of the center and high rise led directly to a 1973 city council ordinance barring any private construction east of Lake Shore Drive.
The city argues Lucas is going to build, and pay for the building, but that Chicago Park District owns the land and, therefore, it will be for the public benefit.