Developer of proposed Lucas museum looking outside Chicago

Image 1 of 2

The wife of "Star Wars" creator George Lucas said Tuesday that opposition to a Chicago lakefront museum by a parks advocacy group has prompted a search outside the city for a site.

Friends of the Parks sued last year to stop plans to build the art museum near Soldier Field on a site that is now a parking lot. The nonprofit group says the plans violated laws restricting development along Lake Michigan. And in a statement Tuesday, the parks group indicated it would be opposed to an alternate site nearby.

Lucas' wife, financial executive Mellody Hobson, expressed frustration at the organization's opposition, saying she and Lucas worked for two years to finalize "what would be the largest philanthropic gift to an American city in the 21st century."

"We are now seriously pursuing locations outside of Chicago," Hobson said in a statement. "If the museum is forced to leave, it will be because of the Friends of the Parks and that is no victory for anyone. ... In refusing to accept the extraordinary public benefits of the museum, the Friends of the Parks has proven itself to be no friend of Chicago."

The latest proposal the parks group opposes calls for demolition of part of the McCormick Place convention complex, which is also by the lake, and replacing it with the museum. Hobson said that plan would create 12 additional acres of parkland.

The plan requires the borrowing of nearly $1.2 billion to replace the demolished structure, extending five taxes beyond their expiration date and state approval. The museum itself would be paid for by Lucas at a cost of $743 million.

"We don't think it's appropriate to exchange building on lakefront land for other things — even if it's park land. It's inappropriate to build on public trust land," said Friends of the Parks executive director Juanita Irizarry.

"Mr. Lucas may leave. That is ultimately his decision. But there are many other viable sites. Chicagoans should not be held hostage to one man's desires," she said. "The public trust must be protected and we will continue to fight for our lakefront to remain open, free and clear."

Father Mike Pfleger says youngsters at St. Sabina's Parish were more excited about the prospect of a museum built by the man who created Star Wars than by any other cultural institution in Chicago. He's infuriated at Friends of the Parks.

"Who the hell are you to decide this isn't good for the children in my neighborhood who would love to go to the museum? To say nothing about getting the jobs of construction and operations afterwards," Pfleger said.

The lakefront protection activists insist that's not the issue.

"The Lucas Museum represents lots of potential jobs and educational opportunity for Chicago. And there's no reason that it can't be on a site in Chicago that is not on the lakefront," said Juanita Iriizary of Friend of the Parks.

After Friends of the Parks made clear that not lakefront site was acceptable, Lucas's wife, native Chicagoan Mellody Hobson, lamented in a written statement: "Their actions and decision rob our state of more than $2 billion in economic benefits."

The city of Chicago and the Chicago Park District on Monday requested a suspension of the legal fight over the museum as they worked on an alternative site plan, and Friends of the Parks agreed. The city withdrew that request Tuesday.

"Friends of the Parks has taken inconsistent and incoherent positions, making it impossible to work with them," Shannon Breymaier, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said in a statement.

Irizarry said the group would either amend its existing lawsuit to target the McCormick site or file a new suit, attempting to apply the same public trust and lakefront-protection principles it holds regarding the parking lot site.

Lucas chose Chicago over San Francisco for the museum after saying the California city was "doodling around," while Chicago officials aggressively pursued the project.