How Chicago lost the George Lucas museum: A cautionary tale

At this point, building the Death Star seems like it would be easier than the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts

Published June 27, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)

 (AP/Denis Poroy)
(AP/Denis Poroy)

"Star Wars" reflects several fundamental and even universal themes in politics, religion, philosophy, and technology. It even raises a controversial question: “Who shot first, Han or Greedo?” The creator of "Star Wars," George Lucas, deserves credit for inspiring millions of people to explore profound topics, and his epic space opera will certainly be culturally significant for generations to come. Lucas wants to build a museum to solidify his legacy. However, after years of legal entanglements, there is a question of galactic proportions: Where will it be built? Chicago has been the primary candidate for two years, but legal proceedings have prevented it from happening. Chicago’s failure to get the museum is symptomatic of today’s political climate. The entire affair involves as many political questions and philosophical themes as "Star Wars" itself. The controversy is reflective of today’s political climate just as "Star Wars" reflects the time period when Lucas first wrote it.

For years Lucas has been trying to build a multimillion-dollar museum dedicated to his collection of art and movie memorabilia. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will be a museum about visual storytelling with a focus on narrative painting, photography, film, and digital art. The museum will include Lucas’ private art collection, and to the delight of dedicated fans, it will include authentic "Star Wars" props. According to the website, the museum will feature “popular art from illustration to comics, an insider’s perspective on the cinematic creative process, and the boundless potential of the digital medium.” It will have three movie theaters, lecture halls, a library, a restaurant, and an education center. Lucas is 72 years old, and he wants to see his “passion project” completed within his lifetime.

There have been a few potential host cities. The selection process is reminiscent to bids made to the International Olympic Committee to host the Olympic Games. The city that offers the best location, will get the museum. Each possible city has a connection to the "Star Wars" creator. Los Angeles wanted the museum near Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena and the University of Southern California. This site made sense because Lucas graduated from USC, and he has donated millions of dollars to its film school. L.A. is also the filmmaking capital of the world. Oakland was a possibility because of its waterfront sites, but many see the city as a less glamorous destination. In 2010, Lucas approached San Francisco to be the site of his legacy museum. This is the location of his television production company, Lucasfilm. The museum was nearly built in the Presidio in 2014, but after four years of unsuccessful land negotiations, Lucas decided to find a different host city.

In June 2014, Lucas officially selected Chicago, where he and his wife, Mellody Hobson, live part time. Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered to accommodate Lucas by offering him prime real estate—lakefront property. Chicago first proposed land on Lake Michigan that is currently a parking lot just south of Soldier Field, where the Bears play their home games, and within walking distance of three other museums. The Chicago Park District promised to lease the property to the museum for $1 a year, and Lucas would have personally financed the project for over $740 million. The museum would be a 300,000-square-foot building on 17 acres of lakefront property.

Accepting millions of dollars to turn a parking lot into a world-class museum seemed like a realistic goal, especially if George Lucas paid for it and it costs the city nothing. The mayor, the city council, the Chicago Park District, and many Chicagoans wanted the museum built. However, there was a major problem: Building on lakefront property violates a city ordinance designed to protect the land.

A small band of rebels, called Friends of the Parks, did everything in its power to prevent construction on Lake Michigan. Friends of the Parks, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve and promote the use of parks in Chicago, filed a lawsuit in November 2014 against the city to prevent construction on public land. The group asserted that the city of Chicago overreached its authority by offering lakefront property to Lucas, and it suggested that Lucas build the museum anywhere in the city but the lakeshore. Doing so would violate a public trust doctrine, which was created a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away ...).

The doctrine has existed since the 1800s, virtually preserving the land and resources for public use. According to the Friends of the Parks, building the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts on the lakeshore would have spoiled Chicago’s lakefront property and ultimately benefited Lucas more than the citizens of Chicago.

On February 4, 2016, a judge ruled that the lawsuit filed could proceed, which prevented construction pending a decision. The ruling would take longer than Lucas was willing to wait, so he sought alternative host cities, including Los Angeles for the second time, as well as the original proposed city, San Francisco. This was San Francisco’s second serious attempt to win the project, first to the Presidio and now to Treasure Island. If only a Death Star could misfire this many times.

Yet in April 2016, Mayor Emanuel made a “Hail Mary” play by proposing a second site on the lakefront where part of the city’s convention center, McCormick Place, currently lies. The plan involved demolishing a section of the convention center, McCormick Place East, and replacing it with the museum. The cost of tearing down one building and constructing another would have been $1.17 billion, and involved various tax extensions and creative political maneuvering by the mayor. Emanuel also pushed for an accelerated timeline for the legal proceedings. This would have sent the federal court decision into light speed by tossing out the suit before Lucas found another city.

On June 17, 2016, after months of court proceedings that have put construction on hold, and after serious threats by Lucas and his wife to find another host city, Friends of the Parks offered to make a deal. They announced they would drop their lawsuit for promises that other park projects in the city were funded in the future, among other concessions.

This attempt was apparently too much for Lucas. One week later on June 24, 2016, Lucas announced that Chicago is no longer a potential site for the museum. He will instead move to California. Unless a bounty hunter from Ord Mantell changes his mind, Chicago has lost the museum.

Imperial Corruption

The entire endeavor leaves us more confused than young Luke Skywalker learning the ways of the Force. Luke’s journey to become a hero was pretty cut and dry, but the Lucas Museum’s journey is much more complicated. The inability of the museum, Friends of the Parks, and Chicago to reach an agreement is symptomatic of a larger political context. It is reflective of today’s political climate of sharp ideological differences and the refusal to compromise. The result is a political system more paralyzed than Han Solo frozen in carbonite. The entire establishment is unable to accomplish anything at the national, state, and local level.

It starts with the federal government. Lawmakers are unwilling to compromise on the most trivial matters, so vital issues, like creating budgets, are virtually impossible to navigate. At the state level, Illinois is experiencing a budget crisis, and a political stalemate in Springfield has done little to solve it. Subsequent funding cuts have decimated social services and universities. Chicago State was forced to lay off over one-third of its staff, and Governor Bruce Rauner wants the state to take control of the Chicago Public Schools to allow the district to file for bankruptcy. The school district is experiencing a $1 billion budget deficit and mass layoffs. Teachers have been working without a contract, and they were forced to take unpaid furlough days. The Chicago Teacher’s Unions threatened to strike many times during the 2015-2016 school year, and a possible strike looms for the fall.

Mayor Emanuel has also been under intense public scrutiny for his handling of high murder rates and police misconduct. Massive civil unrest erupted following the release of a dashcam video of the killing of Laquan McDonald, who was shot sixteen times by police. The mayor was criticized for keeping the video a secret and for releasing it under suspicious circumstances. Some suggested that the mayor attempted a cover-up. The fallout led directly to the firing of then-Police Chief Gary McCarthy in December 2015, and activists demonstrated their electoral power by defeating Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in the Illinois primary election in March 2016. This was due impart to grassroots efforts organized by Black Lives Matter.

Negotiation is Our Only Hope

Chicago has apparently lost one of the largest philanthropic gifts of the 21st century. But as of this writing, Lucas has not officially found another location for his museum. Negotiation is our only hope to bring it back to Chicago.

A difficult political climate makes it easier to build a Death Star than a museum. It comes down to this: A billionaire filmmaker wants to build a museum on Chicago’s most sacred land. What is the moral imperative? Should billionaires be allowed to do whatever they want, regardless of good intentions? Does preserving the environment mean preventing a world-class museum from being built on a parking lot? Should the mayor divert resources and political capital away from critical issues to focus on a museum? The answers are not black and white. "Star Wars" teaches us about the struggle between good and evil; it is a story of good guys and bad guys, but the real world is much different. We must make room for negotiation—and common sense.

First, while there should be special protection for shoreline property, there should be room for compromise. This is not a fight for Chicago’s lakefront; it is a fight for a small piece. Building a museum does not automatically give a green light to build on the entire shoreline. No one wants private condominiums along the shore, but a small compromise would bring one building—a state-of-the-art museum.

The lakefront is a unique destination that offers more than just a natural setting. It is already home to some of Chicago’s world-class museums. The Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Adler Planetarium are all located on the museum campus. These institutions draw millions of visitors each year and add cultural and economic value to the city. The Lucas Museum is estimated to bring an additional $2 billion to $2.5 billion in tourist spending, and it will generate $120 million to $160 million in new taxes. The chief executives of the top museums in Chicago offered their support to the Lucas Museum with an open letter, writing that “the museum [would be] a long-term investment in our city that will continue to pay returns for generations to come.” They wrote that the new museum would make Chicago a “more creative, more prosperous and more dynamic city.”

A point of contention involves building the museum in another location in the city, perhaps in an underdeveloped neighborhood. Lucas is not interested in this; he wants the lakefront close to the other museums. Critics say he is egotistical and that he does not truly care about Chicago. This is unfair criticism.

Indeed, building the museum somewhere else would make it more accessible to some people; however, it would also inadvertently make it inaccessible to others. Clustering museums together, like other major cities do, create “museum campuses” that are catalysts for the tourist industry, which increases economic benefits to a city. Likewise, the educational impact of any museum is dependent on its location and school accessibility, which is why museums go to extraordinary lengths to provide bus scholarships and even free admission to students. Thus, concentrating museums in one area widens and strengthens their influence in a city.

To be fair, Friends of the Parks, and anyone who advocates for public parks and the environment, are not rebel scum. It is unwarranted to denounce a small advocacy group who has filed a lawsuit based on a public trust doctrine. Chicago’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance forbids any development east of Lake Shore Drive. The doctrine is design to provide special protection to lakefront land. Anyone can file the suit. It is not fair to attack people who are dedicated to protecting the environment and beautiful spaces. Any resident or tourist of Chicago will affirm that Lake Michigan’s shoreline is the city’s most sacred land. Most major cities do not have undeveloped waterfront property. This has helped preserve Chicago’s eighteen-mile lakefront trail and added unparalleled cultural, historical, and recreational value to the city.

However, while it may be wrong to criticize Friends of the Parks for trying to protect public land, it also seems unreasonable for them to not allow any construction at all. One building does not destroy the entire shoreline.

One can speculate that the vast majority of people who enjoy the lakefront do so with no intentions of environmental protection whatsoever. One does not have to be an environmentalist to enjoy Chicago’s lakefront. It is home to running paths, skate parks, Navy Pier, the Bears, and various other recreational amenities that have little to do with nature. Preserving open space does not categorically involve environmental intentions. A museum would increase recreational value.

The first proposal site in Chicago would have put the museum on what is now a parking lot used by Bears’ fans to tailgate. It is not exactly an environmentally friendly space. The museum would replace tailgating spots and add additional greenspace. The second proposed site where the convention center is currently located would have also added greenspace with an ecofriendly park that naturally filters stormwater.

Finally, it is easy to understand why people are suspicious when a wealthy individual wants to build on public land. After all, millionaires and billionaires do not necessarily serve the public while securing private profit. Rising inequality and privatization leaves us with fewer public spaces, and the new prospect of offering naming rights and donor recognition for national parks leaves people skeptical of how the government raises money. Furthermore, our entire political system is held hostage when special interests of the super-rich undermine the government, leaving the rest of us with inefficient social services, budget cuts, and crippling debt. Should a billionaire be allowed to build an investment on public land?

The government has the power to seize land with certain limitations. This is how it builds roads, sewer lines, and schools, but so-called eminent domain becomes problematic when land is seized for private profit. However, building a museum is not a lucrative endeavor. Perhaps a toxic political environment blinds us from seeing goodwill when it is clearly present. Lucas wants to gift millions of dollars to the city in the form of a museum. This will certainly have far-reaching economic and educational implications.

Lucas made $4 billion dollars by selling "Star Wars" to Disney, but he donates much of his wealth to philanthropic causes. In 2010, he signed The Giving Pledge, a promise by billionaires to donate their wealth to good causes. He created the George Lucas Educational Foundation and Edutopia, and in Chicago he donated $25 million to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and another $25 million to After School Matters, a nonprofit organization that offers after-school and summer programs to Chicago teenagers. His wife, Mellody Hobson, is the chair of the board. He says, “The whole point of this museum is to stimulate the imagination…to open eyes to the possibilities of creating art.” Why can’t we take him for his word? Our lack of faith is disturbing.

Bringing the Lucas Museum to Chicago would undoubtedly have a positive impact on the educational and emotional lives of millions of people. I have been a museum educator for almost nine years. I develop and teach hands-on programs for school-aged students. While my political views are mine alone, I can speak with first-hand experience about the educational impact museums have on teachers and students. I see it every single day. Museums expose students to history, science, art, culture, and a wide range of other topics they may not experience at home or school. Museums offer unprecedented teacher professional development courses and after-school programs. It does not matter where one lives or how much money one has — museums are places everyone can go to learn and be inspired.

The controversy surrounding the museum reflects today’s toxic political environment, which leaves little room for compromise. The challenge is overcoming a political climate that makes it difficult to satisfy the needs of the people. A land ordinance that protects lakefront property benefits the city, but so too would a brand new museum. These should not be in conflict.

By Dustin Axe

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