Filmmaker George Lucas envisions a lakefront lot becoming the site of an undulating, futuristic showpiece of a museum devoted to narrative art, with three theaters and a 4,200-square-foot library.
CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been publicly subdued in recent months, his caustic temperament largely under wraps as Chicago struggles through problems on all sides: a crime wave, financial troubles, public distrust and a struggle over civil rights.
But one local issue, pitting environmentalists against a Hollywood director and local power brokers in a battle over lakefront land, has drawn out signs of the old and combative Emanuel. And it has turned a faded parking lot of crumbling asphalt into one of the most fiercely contested pieces of land in the city.
Filmmaker George Lucas envisions that lot as the site of an undulating, futuristic showpiece of a museum devoted to narrative art, with three theaters and a 4,200-square-foot library.
Local activists see it as a precious piece of Chicago’s waterfront, a place of open views and public ownership. They have sued to block plans to build the museum.
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Emanuel has sided with Lucas, portraying the museum as a prize for Chicago, a singular cultural attraction and a shiny new addition to Chicago’s expansive lakefront that he hopes will give the city an economic boost.
He has been cautious in his public comments since the release of a video in November depicting the shooting of a black teen, Laquan McDonald, by the police. The video set off furious dissent that reached as far as the streets outside Emanuel’s home on the North Side.
But he has reacted to the lakefront dispute vigorously and, at points, sarcastically, mockingly dismissing Friends of the Parks, the group that filed suit to block the project, as “Friends of the Parking Lot.” On a recent radio show he denounced the group, saying it was endangering the project by forcing “a legal fight to preserve a parking lot.”
“I know where I stand,” Emanuel said. “I would like the lawsuit to go away so we can turn a parking lot into a museum. It’s not that great a parking lot, trust me.”
The plan has hit a nerve in Chicago, where in 1836 it was mandated that the lakefront be public ground to remain “forever open, clear and free.”
“We think it’s ridiculous that the city of Chicago would essentially give away such an amazing public asset,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks. “Our lakefront is our jewel.”
In the tradition of powerful Chicago mayors, Emanuel has already shepherded the project through the City Council. The Chicago Park District and the city Plan Commission have all approved plans for the museum, and construction was scheduled to begin this spring.
But in February, Judge John Darrah of U.S. District Court refused to dismiss a 2014 lawsuit filed by Friends of the Park against Chicago to block the project. The suit argues that leasing the land to the museum is illegal.
For Lucas, creator of the original “Star Wars” series, the battle is a bit of a sequel. In 2014, he pulled back from building his museum in San Francisco amid another furious community battle and after officials rejected a proposal to construct the building on a prime piece of bayside land in the Presidio.
Lucas and his wife, businesswoman Mellody Hobson, moved to bring the museum to her hometown, Chicago.
The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art would hold items from Lucas’ art collection, Norman Rockwell illustrations, paintings and photography. It would also explore the history of film and host screenings, lectures and workshops, museum officials said.
Few people object to the content. It is the location that riles them.
“There is this great historic legacy of the lakefront as a public amenity, which really is deeply embedded in the consciousness of Chicago,” said Philip Bess, an architecture professor at the University of Notre Dame. “At the same time, it’s in keeping with the history of Chicago that what happens on the lakefront depends on who has the power and authority. It’s Chicago clout politics.”
Friends of the Parks would like to see the land turned into a natural sanctuary. Irizarry said she was especially irked that the museum was offered the land practically free, a 99-year lease for $10.
The museum’s planners have argued that the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art would be built in an area of the lakefront that is already heavily developed — within walking distance of Soldier Field, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium.
“It’s hardly an inviolate landscape anyway,” said Henry Bienen, a former Northwestern University president who is a member of the museum’s board.
Friends of the Parks and the city are expected back in court in April.