The saga of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is nothing less than epic. The proposed museum has had the distinction of raising (or lowering) the dialogue of an architectural project to the level of personal attacks and federal court hearings in two cities. The project’s first proposed location on public land in San Francisco fell through when the city refused to lease the land to the would-be private museum. That was over two years ago. The next proposal was a complete 180-degree turn with a new design and location on the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago. Since that proposal, the road has been anything but smooth, and now the entire project is threatening to move to another city, once again.
The first obstacle the project faced was the court of public opinion. Designed by the Beijing-based MAD Architects, the original iteration of the project was called “needlessly massive” and “jarringly off-key” by Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, and “defacing the city’s lakefront as much as any teenager with a can of spray paint” by Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago. That is not is to say that the museum has not had its proponents. Most notably, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been outspoken in his support of bringing and keeping the museum in Chicago. (Many would say to a fault.) Other public figures have spoken in favor of the museum, including Civil Rights advocates Father Michael Pfleger and Reverend Jesse Jackson.
As MAD’s design developed, the building shrank in size and a more landscaped park by Chicago-based Studio Gang was added. This went a long way in appeasing those skeptical of the project, but it would not be enough to avoid the wrath of the museum’s most vocal opponent, Friends of the Parks (FOTP). The nonprofit public space advocacy group has taken its grievances to court, and so far has seen some success. In February, a federal judge agreed to hear the case, rejecting the city’s appeal to have it dismissed. FOTP’s argument is based on the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which restricts and regulates building on lakefront. The ordinance states that its purpose is “To insure that the lakefront parks and the lake itself are devoted only to public purposes and to insure the integrity of and expand the quantity and quality of the lakefront parks.” The city argues that as the project has been approved by the Building Commission, the body that maintains the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, the project should be allowed to move forward.
In a response to FOTP’s lawsuit, advocates for the museum point out that the museum is planned to take the place of a 1,500-car parking lot for the NFL’s Soldier Field. This has led to an oft-repeated ad hominem nickname, Friends of the Parking (Lot). It has also been argued that all of the other museums along the lakefront, just north of the proposed site, are privately owned and run. These include the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium—all of which have notably been started with private investment from individuals.
Now entrenched in a slow-moving legal battle, the 71-year-old George Lucas is getting anxious to begin building. With construction originally slated to begin in early 2016, and completion expected in 2018, a protracted court case is making the original plan unlikely. In what is being described as a last ditch Hail Mary to keep the museum from moving to yet another city, Mayor Emanuel announced an alternative location mid-April. The new plan calls for the demolition of the Gene Summers and Helmut Jahn–designed McCormick Place Lakeside Center. The much-derided modernist convention center is part of the larger McCormick Place Convention Center and has a lease for the lakefront location through 2042. Part of the appeal of the original proposal was that Lucas was going to cover the $750 million cost out of his own pocket. It is estimated that demolishing Lakeside Center and moving the convention space into a new space would cost an additional $1.2 billion. This would involve some fancy finance work, the extension of a handful of taxes currently due to expire, and the involvement of the state legislator. If only for the reason that the Illinois state government is intractably locked in partisan gridlock, unable to make any financial decisions, most are calling this plan a long shot.
Shortly after the new site was proposed, FOTP announced that they would oppose any building on the lakefront, even if it was on the current site of the McCormick Place. In response, Mellody Hobson, a native Chicagoan and wife of George Lucas, released a statement blasting FOTP and announcing the couple was actively searching for new sites outside of Chicago. She closed the statement with, “If the museum is forced to leave, it will be because of the Friends of the Parks and that is no victory for anyone.”
Subsequently, the City of Chicago requested that the FOTP lawsuit be thrown out by a federal appeals court on emergency grounds. The city is arguing that the normal appeals process would take too long, and the museum would most likely be relocated before the matter could be settled.