The fate of the Lucas Museum project in Chicago was thrown into major doubt Tuesday after Friends of the Parks declared its opposition to any lakefront site, prompting the Lucas camp to announce that it was “seriously pursuing locations outside of Chicago.”
Juanita Irizarry, the parks group’s executive director, acknowledged that the city’s alternative proposal for a museum on the McCormick Place lakefront site had led to a split within her group. But Friends of the Parks, which has sued to block the project, was taking a firm stand, she said: “We maintain there should not be development on the lakefront.”
That position prompted Mellody Hobson, a Chicago financial executive and wife of “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, to issue a sharp statement complaining that “this process has been co-opted and hijacked by a small special interest group.”
“In refusing to accept the extraordinary public benefits of the museum, the Friends of the Parks has proven itself to be no friend of Chicago,” Hobson said. “We are now seriously pursuing locations outside of Chicago. If the museum is forced to leave, it will be because of the Friends of the Parks and that is no victory for anyone.”
Hobson said the museum would bring more than $2 billion in economic benefit to the city, thousands of jobs and education opportunities for children.
“As an African-American who has spent my entire life in this city I love, it saddens me that young black and brown children will be denied the chance to benefit from what this museum will offer,” she said.
The back-and-forth came one day after the parks group agreed to a 30-day pause in its federal lawsuit against the original proposed museum location south of Soldier Field. But the city of Chicago and the Chicago Park District withdrew the motion to stay the case Tuesday afternoon, throwing the next steps in doubt. They had requested that delay to allow time for the state legislature to consider tax aspects of the McCormick Place Lakeside Center plan.
Irizarry said that, at this point, the group would either amend its existing lawsuit to target the Lakeside Center site or file a new suit, attempting to apply the same public trust and lakefront protection principles the group has outlined as the reasons that the project does not belong near Lake Michigan.
“I think the city should expect that we would continue with a court process against any site on the lakefront,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel expressed confusion at the group’s position.
“We’re disappointed and baffled at Friends of the Parks’ comments, which are contradictory to the decision they made less than 24 hours ago to stay the lawsuit,” spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier said in a statement. “Friends of the Parks has taken inconsistent and incoherent positions, making it impossible to work with them.”
A plan by the city and Lucas to build a museum housing a collection of his traditional and digital artwork at a site south of Soldier Field stalled because of the parks group’s federal lawsuit. With Lucas considering other cities, Emanuel last month proposed shifting the project south to the Lakeside Center convention hall, which would be torn down and replaced with the museum building and landscaped parkland.
The new plan requires the borrowing of nearly $1.2 billion, extending five taxes beyond their expiration date and state approval. The museum itself would be paid for by Lucas at a cost of $743 million.
Irizarry said ongoing negotiations with many interested parties have centered on support for parks and lakefront land in exchange for Friends of the Parks stepping aside in the Lucas Museum fight. She said membership and the group’s financial backers are split on whether to support or oppose the new project but that the group “has a high tolerance for risk” and will not stand down from its principles of advocating for a free, open and clear lakeshore.
“I’m hoping for a third option” besides the two lakefront plans, Irizarry said.
She said the group continues to push for the museum to be built in Chicago at a site near the proposed locations but away from the lake. The group has suggested the former Michael Reese Hospital site at 31st Street, land near 18th Street west of Lake Shore Drive or the McCormick Place truck marshaling yards, which also are west of the drive.
City officials and Lucas have consistently rejected the alternatives west of Lake Shore Drive.
Irizarry said she believes there is not enough statewide support for the Lucas project at Lakeside Center and that it’s likely the group will be back in court next month.
Friends of the Parks, whose lawsuit was the last remaining obstacle to building the museum at the original site, continues to wield considerable sway over whether the Lucas project gets built here. Hobson says the 71-year-old filmmaker is weary of the delays and wants to ensure that the museum is built before he dies.
If the parks group decides to continue its opposition to a lakefront museum site in court, it could spell doom for Lucas in Chicago.
John Buenz, a member of the group who is a plaintiff in the case against the original proposal, said last week that he also is opposed to the new location. Buenz, who is not an official spokesman for the group, said the lakefront should be free, open and clear for the enjoyment of all residents and that building a museum, even by replacing an existing structure, is not in the public’s best interest or the intended use of the Lake Michigan shore.
“I don’t think it should be between (Lake Shore Drive) and the lake,” he said. “It just should not go on the lakefront.”
The city said Monday that it has turned over 18,000 pages of documents related to the original site proposal to the preservation group’s lawyers. Friends of the Parks requested the documentation in an effort to determine how the site was selected as it prepared to argue against lifting a court-ordered construction standstill.
The parks group contends the original Lucas Museum plans violate the public trust doctrine and that the project would benefit Lucas more than city and state residents. Since the new plan calls for the museum to be built on the shell of the demolished Lakeside Center, also built on landfill formerly a part of Lake Michigan, the group may be able to craft a similar argument. But the fact that a building exists there now could complicate that strategy, sources said.
The Lucas Museum would have a smaller footprint than the existing convention space, and the plan calls for 12 acres of green space and tree plantings in the area to the north of the proposed new structure, a clear nod to preservationists.
The mayor’s plan calls for building replacement convention space west of Lake Shore Drive in a “bridge building” between convention halls there.
Friends of the Parks said it had met with Hobson and the Rev. Michael Pfleger, who has criticized the group for fighting a project that backers say will create jobs and boost the city’s economy.
Pfleger criticized the parks group Tuesday, saying the Lakeside Center plan would bring a “world-class” museum to Chicago and replace “an outdated elephant on the lakefront that no one wants to touch because of the enormous cost involved.”
In a statement, he called Friends of the Parks “a group of elitist individuals who want control of the lakefront!”
“Their latest opposition exposes the falsehood of their argument for green space,” Pfleger wrote. “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!”
Irizarry said she is aware of the jobs aspect of the project but that the group must weigh all aspects of the proposal.
Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin and John Byrne contributed.