Lucas Museum Teaches City Leaders Important Lessons for Future Development

Lucas Museum Teaches City Leaders Important Lessons for Future Development

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The fight for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art on Chicago’s lakefront kept us guessing during the twists and turns to decide its fate

George Lucas ended the speculation on Friday when he announced that he and his wife, native Chicagoan Mellody Hobson, were pulling their plans from Chicago.

Chicago Tribune’s editorial board offers some lasting lessons to guide potential future fights involving construction on the lakefront. We talked to board member John McCormick about the lessons. Here’s what he had to say:

On arguments around the “public trust doctrine

Waterfront land is something that everyone, even the poorest among us, has as much access to as the richest. It goes back to Justinian I, who basically laid down the foundation for the “this is a public place, and you can build near it, but the public must have access to it” law. 

We supported the museum, hoping it would be somewhere in Chicago — but not on the lakefront. We don’t have mountains and we don’t have forests but we have this extraordinary lakefront.

There’s a fallacy that some of the proponents of the lakefront location suggest that if you don’t want the Lucas Museum built, then you’d also want the Field Museum burned to the ground, or eliminate the Adler or the Shed even. 

The public trust doctrine has evolved since the late 1970s. It used to be about keeping the lakefront free of big commercial endeavors (factories, things like that). It was more about environmental, open space and public access concerns. So those museums were all built before this evolution. 

McCormick Place (Wikimedia Commons)
McCormick Place (Wikimedia Commons)

On how this battle compares to others and getting rid of the McCormick Place

It was only a few years ago we were talking about the Children’s Museum effort to leave Navy Pier and go to Grant Park. They thought better of it, but [at the time] we also had a mayor that was obsessed with creating something on his watch.

For a federal judge named John Darrah, who was deep in this case, it was crucial to him that the Lucas Museum was intended to be a private entity for public benefit (but aren’t we all for public benefit?). He was carefully reminding the city’s lawyers along the way that they were talking about putting a private entity on publicly protected land. I don’t know if the judge scared them away but he definitely made clear that there was a possibility that he’d be overruled by a higher court. 

On the Lucas Museum battle being a federal matter

If you’re a mayor you can’t run off to Cook County Circuit Court — where a lot of the judges tend to like whatever Democratic mayors like — you’re going to have to go through someone like Judge Darrah.

In response to Mayor Rahm Emanuel

[In general] we learn a lot about each other on our bad days. I thought it was unfortunate that the Mayor ended with a spirit of acrimony.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.