Everything You Need To Know About The Lucas Museum Debacle
News broke over the weekend that Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee are discussing new sites for Lucas’ planned museum of narrative art. This brings the Lucas Museum saga full circle, two years after Lucas settled on building the museum along Chicago’s lakefront. Let’s take a look at how Chicago won, and likely lost, the Lucas Museum.
Lucas' main tie to Chicago is his wife, Ariel Investments president Mellody Hobson (left, with Lucas). In 2013, the couple held their wedding reception at Hyde Park's Promontory Point. The guest list included former Mayor Richard Daley and current Mayor Rahm Emanuel. At the time, Lucas was courting San Francisco and Los Angeles as possible sites for his museum. Those two cities make sense: Lucas studied film at USC and his Skywalker Ranch is in Marin County, CA. Throughout the site selection process, Lucas favored building the museum along a body of water, and San Francisco's The Presidio was long believed to be where the museum would land.
Then Rahm swept in at the last moment with an offer Lucas couldn't refuse: 17 acres along the lakefront, on the site of a parking lot (shown) between Soldier Field and McCormick Place. The catch? Emanuel would lease the land to Lucas for one dollar per year, in exchange for Lucas covering the costs for the $790M project out of pocket. The mayor's site selection task force chose this spot because its proximity to the Museum Campus would be a boost to local tourism, and it would bring much-needed public transit improvements to the lakefront.
After Chicago was officially selected as the home of the museum, Lucas revealed renderings of what the museum could look like (pictured). The designs from starchitect Ma Yansong depicted a futuristic structure rising like a mountain from the lakefront, with an observation deck providing guests with unfettered views of the lakefront and Chicago's world-class downtown skyline. Meanwhile, homegrown architect Jeanne Gang was tasked with the landscaping surrounding the museum, including connecting it to Northerly Island, which Gang is also designing.
The combination of Ma's futuristic design and, more important, Rahm's seemingly unilateral decision to essentially give Lucas the land for free sent critics in an uproar. The greenspace advocacy group Friends of the Parks filed a federal lawsuit in November 2014 to prevent the project from moving forward, arguing that the State of Illinois, not the city, had the final say on development along the lakefront under Public Trust doctrine. The decision to file the suit in federal court was a calculated move. US District Court Judge John Darragh found FOTP's lawsuit to have merit. Lucas responded to the ensuing legal battle by scouting sites in Los Angeles once again.
Emanuel, seeking to break the stalemate, offered an alternative: McCormick Place's Lakeside Center (shown). But the plan came with a cost. Instead of building the museum within the existing shell (Lakeside Center is on Preservation Chicago's "Chicago 7" list of endangered buildings), Rahm suggested the state issue $1.2B in bonds to raze the building so Lucas could build the museum. FOTP, which earlier agreed to suspend its lawsuit while the sides worked on a compromise, reversed course and opposed this plan. This led Hobson to issue a scathing statement claiming the museum project was "hijacked" by a special interest group that had no interest in negotiating, and that she and Lucas were seriously considering bringing the museum to another city. Lucas and San Francisco Mayor Lee are believed to be looking at Treasure Island as a possible site.
Emanuel, for what it's worth, isn't done fighting to keep the museum in Chicago. City attorneys last week filed a motion asking to toss FOTP's lawsuit, arguing that any protracted litigation would force Lucas' hand.