I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This: Chicago’s Battle to Keep the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art
During a scheduled hearing today, the Chicago-based “Friends of the Parks” will continue its legal challenge against the placement and construction of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. The not-for-profit watchdog group asserts that allowing the museum to be built on an existing overflow parking lot between Solider Field and McCormick Place on Chicago’s lakefront would violate the 1836 public trust doctrine that mandated that the lakefront be public property that remain “forever open, free and clear.” Interestingly, this is not the first time that this doctrine has been put to the test by influential leaders
and interest groups. It was precisely the subject of a hotly contested 1909 lawsuit between retail magnates Montgomery Ward, who supported the free and clear doctrine, and Stanley Field, nephew of the legendary Marshall Field, who wanted to build a world-class museum at the lakefront center of Grant Park—the site that would eventually host the iconic Clarence Buckingham Fountain. What made this case complicated is that the bulk of Grant Park was man made and did not exist in 1836 when the public trust doctrine went into effect. Instead, much of the substructure of the park had been created by burnt fill and wreckage from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Despite this technicality, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in 1910 that a structure such as the proposed Field Museum violated the public trust doctrine and Ward prevailed in keeping the museum out of Grant Park. However, when additional landfill was created south of the park, the museum was allowed to move forward because this specific land wasn’t subject to the ruling of the 1910 Illinois Supreme Court decision and Montgomery Ward had since passed away, unable to challenge the new project. The development of the Field Museum of Natural History in 1921 paved the way for other important institutions such as the construction of Solider Field in 1924, and the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium in 1930, which rounded out the area known today as the Museum Campus.
While Ward’s efforts are largely seen as heroic in the eyes of park advocates, preservationists and public land experts (and he very rightly defended the public against many private development interests), it’s important to note that the same structures he was trying to prevent in Grant Park, became the City’s most important cultural institutions and some of its biggest tourist attractions—undeniably in the public interest. Even Ward admitted a lack of public support for his cause after winning his 1909 lawsuit
saying, “Had I known in 1890 how long it would take me to preserve a park for the people against their will, I doubt if I would have undertaken it. I think there is not another man in Chicago who would have spent the money I have spent in this fight with the certainty that even gratitude would be denied as interest.”
With regards to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, the Friends of the Parks are now playing the part of Montgomery Ward: an unwanted watchdog. As a lifelong Chicagoan and former certified urban planner, I am astounded at the nearsightedness of the preservationist group. For a city mired in debt, with diminishing tourist attractions and boasting some of the country’s worst weather, the economic and cultural opportunities linked to transforming an existing parking lot into a one-of-a-kind, world-class museum is the biggest no-brainer for Chicago since the 1893 World’s Fair—the event, by most accounts, that really put the city on the map. I know the Friends of the Parks to be a generally good and well-intentioned citizen group, but they have chosen the wrong project to dig in their heels, and could cause great harm by doing so.
Having worked on the Buckingham Fountain Restoration Project a few years ago, I have some depth in both the history of the subject area as well as development issues directly related to this project. Here are some of the most common citizen issues/concerns that I have heard or read about regarding the Lucas Museum:
“Only hardcore Star Wars fans will go.”
Even if this were true, Star Wars is arguably the most valuable intellectual property on the planet, having earned more than $40 billion worldwide. The recent release of The Force Awakens as the most successful film of all time not only proves that Star Wars is way beyond a niche interest, but may in fact be among the most accessible institutions in the world of fiction.
Also important, the scope of the Lucas Museum will be far more than just Star Wars. Besides playing host to one of the world’s greatest collections of Norman Rockwell art, the museum will feature dozens of the most important works of narrative art, fantasy, science fiction, and Americana of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Why don’t they put the Museum in (insert far less attractive alternate location)?”
This has proven to be one of the biggest misunderstandings around the proposed project. The opportunity to have the museum at that specific location is far more of an all-or-nothing ordeal than what is understood. To be clear, Lucas didn’t choose Chicago and let Chicago decide how it could best benefit the City or economically revitalize a certain area. He chose Chicago with the condition of that exact location or one of a similar profile. This is notable because it is exactly the reason that Chicago has this opportunity in the first place. San Francisco was the original planned location for the Lucas museum, but when Lucas was denied his desired site at the Presidio overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge (a superior site to the proposed Chicago lakefront location, IMO), he subsequently pulled the project and selected the Chicago site. This is not to say that he wouldn’t approve an alternate location, but I promise it will not be less accessible, attractive or high-profile than the existing spot.
“The museum benefits George Lucas and Chicago politicians more than it does the public.”
It’s pretty hard to substantiate who benefits more, although it’s hard to say that George Lucas, Rahm Emmanuel or anybody else benefits more from a free $450 million museum with a one-of-a-kind collection of 19th and 20th century art than the 9 million Chicagoans who will have access to it. Also notable is that it will serve as another important draw for younger generations to visit the other incredible institutions of the museum campus, opening their eyes to the wonders of, not just Lucas’ universe, but ours.
“The museum is an eyesore and it will permanently spoil the land for future park development.”
I’m not an architecture critic, but I do love architecture. Regardless of how successful the Ma Yansong design is, let’s keep in mind that we are replacing an overflow parking lot between McCormick Place and the remodeled Solider Field—two buildings that are not going anywhere soon and hardly architectural marvels. With regards to the land, the Museum would be built on the same fill that rests beneath the Field Museum, Solider Field, the Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium—there is already a precedent in place to site museums here. Saving a parking lot in the hope that someday it may become a park is simply not a strong enough reason to compromise this once-in-a-lifetime project.
“This is a classic example of ‘the Chicago Way’—quid pro quo politics.”
This may well be so and, perhaps in a perfect world, the project would have an extensive public consensus building process to ensure that all stakeholders and public interest groups were represented and considered. But, this is a unique scenario where someone wants to plant a coveted collection at their own expense on public land. This dramatically changes the dynamics of the project. Put it this way, while the “Chicago Way”-- a political system traditionally characterized by backroom deals, over budget, bloated projects, and poor consensus building approaches— isn’t the best way, it can yield results that are beneficial to the City and its people. Past examples of the Chicago Way include:
-The Columbian Exposition World's Fair 1893
-The Museum Campus
-The Century of Progress World’s Fair 1933-1934
These examples are not meant to defend the “Chicago Way” of politics and business, only to point out that it can still yield publicly beneficial results.
“No one asked me!”
This seems to be the thrust of the Friends of the Parks motivation—that no consensus building process was held. Such a belief from such a group is entirely understandable given their nature, and supported by the fact that virtually every public improvement on Chicago Park District property has some statutory level of public process. But, this is a unique situation and we are not holding the cards. George Lucas doesn’t need to donate his world-class collection and spend $450 million of his own money here—he can pick up and leave as he did in San Francisco. This leverage quite naturally shifts the level of public input there can be. But it would be reactionary and short-sighted to say that this project wouldn’t benefit Chicago and its people just because it didn’t have such a process. And if you want proof, see the list of the projects that were completed “the Chicago Way.” In short, we need George and his museum more than he needs us!
Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re My Only Hope!
Legendary Chicago architect and planner Daniel Burnham famously said “Make no small plans,” but I believe this is exactly what the Friends of the Parks would have us do here—save a parking lot in the hope that we may someday sod it over. That’s simply not a good enough reason to halt an opportunity like the Lucas Museum.
If you are struggling to see how this project doesn’t represent a tremendous cultural and economic opportunity for the City of Chicago, then please consider signing this petition.
May the Force be with us.
Michael Witwer is the author of Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons and a former certified urban planner (AICP). You can find him at www.empireofimagination.com or on Twitter at @mikewitwer