Lucas Museum Litigation Highlights Problems for All Levels of Government

Author: William C. Westfall

May 12, 2016

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is the brainchild of the one and only George Lucas, and was slated to be completed in 2019-2020 in Chicago’s Near South Side, just south of Soldier Field and adjacent to Burnham Harbor. And, it would be built primarily on land that is currently a parking lot used for the stadium. However, just like Lucas’s original plan for the museum in San Francisco, it has been met with opposition. This time from a conservation group named Friends of the Park (FOTP). This is the unofficial and self-appointed oversight committee for Chicago’s Park District and Cook County Forest Preserve.

The museum would focus on paintings, photography, illustration, cinematic art, and digital art.  The primary contributor would be Lucas himself, who has a personal collection with an estimated value of $1 billion. Now, the hang-ups begin with the very issue that enticed Lucas to abandon San Francisco and come to Chicago in the first place: cheap, public land. The museum would lease land from the Chicago Park District for a period of 99 years at $1 per year.  FOTP claims the terms essentially give the property to a private entity, despite the land belonging to the public and being required to be used for public use.  Furthermore, while the initial cost of building the museum appears to be Lucas’s responsibility, the maintenance is borne by the taxpayers.  Also, the design of the museum, while ever changing, has faced criticism by many for its size, its cost to the public, and its destruction of scenic lakefront property.

FOTP filed a federal lawsuit to prevent the project from going forward, alleging multiple grounds. But in March 2015, a federal judge ruled in favor of the conservation group, stating the land in question is held in public trust, and the Illinois Legislature was the only body with the authority to approve such construction. Well, the legislature quickly gave that approval, and the City of Chicago and the Park District also signed off. But the lawsuit remains. The trial court denied the City’s Motion to Dismiss the lawsuit, and the City is currently appealing the decision, stating if the lawsuit continues, and FOTP gets their day in court, Lucas will simply abandon his plans, much like he did in San Francisco, and move to Los Angeles or any other city that has been begging him to build and trigger tourism and development.  Lucas’s wife confirmed these intentions in a public statement last week.

FOTP recently issued a statement claiming Lucas isn’t serious about abandoning his years of planning a second time. And he is, more or less, bluffing. Clearly, FOTP does not morally oppose the project. For if they were actually opposed, they would be at the enemy’s gates and have already claimed victory. They are using the legal proceedings as stall tactics, forcing the given parties to re-negotiate the terms: the size, the length of the lease, the taxpayers footing the maintenance bill, and perhaps even the particular site. Further, FOTP now has a seat at the negotiating table, albeit indirectly. But, how serious is Lucas? How serious is FOTP? How will this all affect the taxpayers?  This is a very interesting case, and it relates to issues and decisions faced and made by units of government every day. It exposes the dichotomy of interests faced by governments and the balancing act that is public office.