Friends of the Parks sues Chicago to block proposed Lucas museum site

By Michaela Meaney 

Friends of the Parks filed a lawsuit Thursday in U.S. District Court to block the proposed lakefront site for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. The action is filed against the Chicago Park District and the city of Chicago. The group states in the suit that the site violates the Illinois public trust doctrine.

“Ultimately Chicago does not want to look back and regret an injudicious decision to sacrifice our lakefront, Chicago’s greatest natural asset,” said Cassandra Francis, president of Friends of the Parks, during a press conference Thursday. “So let’s use ‘The Force’ to do good for Chicago.”

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art’s proposed location currently houses two parking lots, between Soldier Field and McCormick Place in the Museum Campus. In its lawsuit, the non-profit park advocacy organization argues that “under various court decisions,” the land is held by the state of Illinois in trust for the public. However the Chicago Park District claims ownership over the site. According to the suit, the land should be maintained as a natural resource for recreational purposes open to all citizens, not private organizations, which the suit says the museum will become, as it will likely “be accountable to a single private individual.”

Although not noted in the lawsuit, Francis said the siting contradicts the 1973 Lakefront Protection Ordinance.

“This over-40 year ordinance clearly states a preclusion of further development east of Lake Shore Drive, and its goal of maintaining the dominantly landscaped and spacious character of our lakefront parks and its emphasis on lake-oriented and public land uses,” Francis said. “We preserve our lakefront for future generations, to protect what others have preserved before us for over a century.”

According to its text, the 1973 Lakefront Protection Ordinance was created to protect and preserve “special environmental, recreational, cultural, historical, community and aesthetic interests and values.”

A panel discussion hosted by the Better Government Association and the Union League Club of Chicago on Wednesday evening invited speakers and the public to express their concerns surrounding the museum’s development.

Representatives from the Mayor’s Site Selection Task Force for the Lucas museum, Friends of the Parks and the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents were present. Over 100 people attended the panel.

During the discussion Lee Bey, a member of the Mayor’s Site Selection Task Force for the Lucas museum, said the task force knew of the ordinance before finalizing its decision.

“We certainly were aware, and we think it doesn’t violate it,” said Bey, special projects manager for the Arts and Public Life initiative at the University of Chicago. Bey explained the area already has roads, parking lots, a stadium and a convention center. “If it’s done in the proper way and [will] be of public use, it’s an asset as opposed to what’s there now. And I think for us, for many of us, that’s the brass tacks of it.”

Francis said that Friends of the Parks was not defending the site’s current parking lots, but explained how they do bring in money for the park district. According to Francis the lots have been previously used by Cirque du Soleil, road racers and Chicago Bears tailgaters.

“It is a revenue-generating opportunity that is open space that will forever be precluded if we mess with it now,” Francis said.

During Thursday’s press conference, Francis also said the “humongous” size of the museum would be an “assault on the shores of Lake Michigan,” at seven levels high and 400,000 square feet.

Andy Shaw, BGA president and CEO, said some worry about whether a change in location would cause Lucas to choose another city altogether, quoting one of his sources who had asked him for anonymity.

“I can’t help to think I wouldn’t have been told that if that wasn’t the case,” Shaw said. “However I hope that doesn’t happen.”

The BGA did not take a stance on the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

Those who attended the panel discussion had mixed opinions on the museum’s proposed site.

“It’s an improper location,” said Dennis McClendon, vice president of development and planning at South Loop Neighbors. “We shouldn’t be using our parks as land banks and just giving them away.”

Allan Mellis, a community leader in Lincoln Park, thought Friends of the Parks needed to “flesh out their ideas.”

“You know, when someone makes the case that car racing, tailgating, is something to be preserved, it makes it very hard to believe,” Mellis said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office did not respond to a request for comment.  The mayor has said he’s confident the museum will withstand legal challenges, according to the Chicago Tribune.

CAPTION: Cassandra Francis, president of Friends of the Parks, announces the organization’s lawsuit to block the lakefront siting of the Lucas museum. Photo by Michaela Meaney/MEDILL