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08.28.2014
Return of the Jedi
Chicago wins George Lucas museum, but site is disputed.
Courtesy City of Chicago

Pursued by both San Francisco and Los Angeles, George Lucas ultimately chose Chicago for his Museum of Narrative Art, an archive for the Hollywood icon’s extensive collection of movie memorabilia and modern art.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel celebrated the announcement, calling it a “cultural and job creation asset.” The museum is part of Emanuel’s agenda to promote cultural tourism downtown. After a nonprofit in San Francisco rejected Lucas’ original proposal to build near the Golden Gate Bridge, Los Angeles, and Chicago—home to Lucas’ wife, Melody Hobson—moved quickly to woo the Star Wars creator into building elsewhere.


Museum site.
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But some are challenging the Chicago site slated for The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which a press release claims “will be a gathering place to experience narrative art and the evolution of the visual image—from illustration to cinema to digital art.” A task force targeted 17 acres of lakefront space between Soldier Field and the McCormick Place Lakeside Center currently occupied by two expansive surface parking lots. Emanuel commissioned the task force, directing 12 business, art, and non-profit leaders to find somewhere for “a new iconic structure” that is “accessible to everyone… has the requisite space” and “needs no Chicago taxpayer dollars.”

Some local observers recommended the former Michael Reese Hospital site—a vacant lakefront expanse in Bronzeville that has also been suggested for a casino and Barack Obama’s presidential library. The task force said infrastructure improvements to the site would require too much public money. They also cut sites in the Calumet Region on the city’s southeast side, near O’Hare International Airport, and near the Pullman neighborhood in favor of a more centrally located site.

Chicago’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance, passed in 1973, bars private development east of Lake Shore Drive. The group Friends of the Parks said allowing Lucas to build his museum on the Museum Campus between Lake Shore Drive and Burnham Harbor would encourage lakefront development.

 

The city’s Plan Commission and City Council still need to approve the site, but Emanuel has said the development is on solid legal ground. He said the museum, built with private money, would legally be a public development as part of the city’s Museum Campus. Its construction is expected to move all existing parking on the site underground, resulting in a net positive number of parking spaces.

“[T]he South Parking Lots site provides a unique opportunity to reclaim hardscape and turn it into green space along our lakefront,” reads the city’s task force report. In addition to building new park space on site, the report recommends tying programming into nearby Northerly Island, which is currently undergoing a redesign led by Studio Gang.

The report also suggested transit upgrades, including new bike lanes and/or a special bus route, updating the 18th Street Metra stop and reconfiguring McCormick Place for CTA buses.

But Friends of the Parks said proponents of building the Lucas Museum on the lakefront are underestimating the cost of development and could be setting the city up for a bait and switch.

Alderman Bob Fioretti, a likely mayoral candidate, has said he would support a legal challenge to the museum. Emanuel has not budged on the recommendation made by his task force, citing figures of economic development in excess of $2 billion. “The Task Force strongly believes that the Museum should be a gift for the entire city—not just for one neighborhood or region,” reads the report.

At press time a design team, including Beijing-based MAD Architects and Chicago-based VOA Associates, was announced for the museum, which is expected to open in 2018. Studio Gang, working with SCAPE, will design the landscape, as well as a new pedestrian bridge to Northerly Island.

Chris Bentley