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Mayor Rahm Emanuel, speaks at a news conference Tuesday as Susan Ungaro, President of the James Beard Foundation, left, listens. The pair announced that the James Beard Foundation awards ceremony is moving from New York to the Windy City next year.(AP File Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Facing lakefront protection battle, Emanuel defends Lucas museum

Facing a lakefront protection battle akin to the Children’s Museum controversy, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday gave a spirited defense of his decision to offer movie mogul George Lucas free lakefront land to build a new interactive museum.

“There’ll be no taxpayer support on this effort. And yet, an individual is willing — like Field, like Adler, like Shedd — to leave a legacy for the city by investing their own money, close to about $1 billion, in enriching the educational and cultural life of the city of Chicago,” the mayor said.

“You don’t take park land off and build a building. You take a parking lot and you create new park space. A big difference…It’s not an accident that all of the museum presidents in the campus have endorsed this idea because they think it will drive attendance…Our contribution is a parking lot. Mr. Lucas’ contribution is $700 million-to-$1 billion of his personal money.”



Emanuel stressed repeatedly that there would be “no taxpayer support” for the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum if Chicago wins a heated competition with the movie mogul’s hometown of San Francisco.

Lucas would get the 17-acre, 750,000 square foot site between Soldier Field and McCormick Place East for $1-a-year in a leasing arrangement similar to the city’s other lakefront museums.

But Emanuel dismissed the value of that land because it’s now an unsightly parking lot that would be replaced by green space, thanks to an underground parking garage that would be built at Lucas’ expense.

Friends of the Park is dead-set against the mayor’s idea, calling it a “slippery slope” and a clear violation of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance that clearly states, “In no instance will further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive.”

That’s the same argument the group made during the political donnybrook that preceded former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s ill-fated plan to build a new Children’s Museum in Grant Park.

On Wednesday, Emanuel called it a lop-sided trade-off heavily weighted in Chicago’s favor.

By offering a site on the stunning lakefront museum campus, Chicago has “put its best foot forward” to secure a tourism and educational opportunity of a lifetime with the potential to light an educational fire among Chicago students, the mayor said.

He sloughed off suggestions that a museum by the creator of Star Wars lacks staying power.

“Just imagine. You’ll leave the Field Museum studying a dinosaur from three million years ago. You’ll walk across and go into another museum and, through computer and digital work, you’ll be designing a dinosaur. That’s an incredible opportunity for us,” the mayor said.

“And when you look at what the 300 kids who participate in the [site selection] process said—they’re excited about it. If kids are excited about going to a museum, we should embrace that as an educational opportunity, a cultural opportunity for the city, let alone all of the economic opportunity…They’re commited to creating park space out of a parking lot. And that’s a good thing for the city.”

Emanuel portrayed the museum that will house Lucas’ formidable collection of artwork and film-making memorabilia as a “complement” to the $110 million museum campus that would “open up” an isolated Northerly Island.

He also ticked off results of an economic impact study that showed the new museum would create 2,500 construction jobs, generate $2.5 billion in tourism spending and up to $160 million in new tax revenue during the first decade of operation.

And even though thousands of parking spaces used by Bears fans attending games at Soldier Field would be moved underground, Emanuel sought to allay the fears of tailgate lovers.

“There’s gonna be tailgating. That will not stop. We’re gonna continue to do that and work through that. Full stop. Get that,” he said.

Lucas established a second home in Chicago after marrying Chicago businesswoman Mellody Hobson.

He originally wanted to build the museum on one of the most breathtaking sites in his home town of San Francisco: Crissy Field on the Army base-turned-national park known as the Presidio.

But when the trust that oversees the federal land rejected all three proposals for that site in February and its chairwoman criticized the Lucas museum design as “inappropriate” and “too big,” Chicago emerged as a potential frontrunner.