The original Lucas Museum plan called for building on Soldier Field's south lot. Credit: Chris Riha

As a sustainable transportation advocate, I’m jazzed whenever land that’s been earmarked for moving or storing automobiles is put to more productive use.

So when Mayor Emanuel first proposed bringing the Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts to Chicago two years ago, one of the potential benefits that most excited me was the prospect of replacing a 1,500-car parking lot with a world-class cultural amenity, plus four acres of new green space.

The butt-ugly expanse of asphalt where the museum would have gone is Soldier Field’s south lot, located on prime lakefront real estate between the football stadium and McCormick Place’s monolithic Lakeside Center.

Granted, this blacktop blemish also serves as a spot for tailgating, an age-old Chicago Bears tradition. In addition, it accommodates other special events that generate revenue for the city. But the Lucas plan would have largely moved the surface parking off the lakefront, while providing new tailgating opportunities in other locations.

So I was bummed when the advocacy organization Friends of the Parks launched a legal battle against the south lot proposal. While the group said it supports bringing the Lucas facility to our city, it argued that building it on the parking lot site would violate the city’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which states that “in no instance will further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive.”

“Although the proposed site is now used as a parking lot, its future reversion to parkland is possible,” FOTP’s then-president Cassandra Francis said in May 2014. “Once a building is in place, it is forever precluded from being public open space.”

Before-and-after aerial views of the original south lot proposal
Before-and-after aerial views of the original south lot proposalCredit: Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts

Emanuel razzed the parks group for its seemingly pro-tarmac stance, mocking it as “Friends of the Parking Lot.” Gino Generelli, a local tech company owner, launched an online petition asking FOTP to drop its lawsuit. “At a time when Chicago needs an organization like yours to protect actual parks, please do not waste the time and resources generously donated to you to protect a parking lot from the fate of becoming a world-class cultural institution,” he wrote. More than 1,500 people have signed so far.

I was similarly annoyed. FOTP’s stated mission is “to preserve, protect, improve and promote the use of parks and open spaces throughout the Chicago area for the enjoyment of all residents and visitors.” It seemed to me that fighting the south lot plan conflicted with that goal.

At this point, it looks like FOTP has effectively deep-sixed the south lot plan. Last February a federal judge denied a motion by the city to dismiss the lawsuit. Litigation could take years. Lucas, 71, has made it clear he’s not willing to wait much longer to break ground—he wants the museum to be completed while he’s still able to enjoy it.

As a last-ditch attempt to keep the museum here, in mid-April Emanuel announced an alternative plan to demolish Lakeside Center to make room for the museum. (A new “bridge building” over King Drive would replace lost convention space.) To sweeten the deal, this plan would create a full 12 acres of new parkland.

That seemed to appeal to Friends of the Parks, which released a statement last Thursday that the group is open to the proposal. “We are pleased that the mayor and the city recently opened the door to . . . more direct conversation about the Lucas Museum,” said executive director Juanita Irizarry.

“The issue of parking lots in parks is a complex public policy issue, not just a simple sound bite.”

—Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks­

But the new plan also appears to be a nonstarter due to its funding formula. While Lucas has offered to kick in $743 million up front, the city says it would need to raise an additional $1.165 billion for the project. This would require the agency that runs McCormick Place to borrow the money through bond financing, which would involve extending the duration of five existing tourist-industry taxes for decades to come. Doing that would require approval from state legislators—highly unlikely when Springfield is already hopelessly mired in partisan deadlock.

So, barring some unforeseen generosity by Lucas, it appears his museum bid is dead in the water. That’s largely due to FOTP’s effort to stop the city from replacing a parking lot with a cultural institution and parkland.

Given this outcome, I asked FOTP whether its actions have conflicted with the group’s stated goals. “We don’t agree with the simplistic premise of your question,” responded director Irizarry. “The issue of parking lots in parks is a complex public policy issue, not just a simple sound bite. Parking lots are often an issue of park access, and they sometimes generate revenue for the Chicago Park District. All of [this] must be considered.” (Neither the mayor’s office nor the Lucas Museum Foundation would comment on this topic.)

A rendering of the current proposal to build the museum on McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center site
A rendering of the current proposal to build the museum on McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center siteCredit: Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

Irizarry says that the group has advocated for replacing surface parking with green space in other Chicago Park District locations, as well as arguing against the creation of new parking lots. For example, it supported the late-90s makeover of the Museum of Science and Industry, which swapped a vast expanse of asphalt for an underground garage capped with a lush lawn perfect for leisurely Frisbee sessions.

And a few weeks ago the group testified at a Chicago Plan Commission meeting, objecting to a proposal to convert green space in Pilsen’s Harrison Park to a parking lot for the National Museum of Mexican Art.

On the other hand, FOTP is backing the Park District’s plan to add parking at 31st Street Beach. “We are supporting that because beachgoers and boaters alike have complained to us that the lack of parking there limits access,” Irizarry says. (The beach already has 470 spaces for the general public, according to the Park District, so I’m guessing patrons may be exaggerating the parking crunch.) 

Having blacktop instead of green space at the south lot for the foreseeable future isn’t necessarily a problem for FOTP. “Many of the founders and current leaders of Friends of the Parks would be happy for Soldier Field not to be on the lakefront at all,” Irizarry says. “But if it is, having a parking area that tailgaters and other outdoor events can use is not an unreasonable expectation.”

However, FOTP has also endorsed the “Burnham Sanctuary” proposal, which calls for converting both the south lot and the Lakeside Center to a wildlife refuge with wetlands, prairies, and winding trails.

A rendering of the proposed Burnham Sanctuary
A rendering of the proposed Burnham SanctuaryCredit: Skidmore, Owings & Merril

The sanctuary proposal doesn’t include a funding mechanism for relocating the 1,500 tailgating spots or replacing the McCormick Place exhibition space. And unlike the museum, the parkland probably wouldn’t generate much revenue for the city. As such, it seems unlikely this vision will ever become a reality.

So was Friends of the Parks’ opposition to the original Lucas proposal a case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good? Or is the group the spiritual heir to mail-order tycoon Aaron Montgomery Ward, who famously fought to keep Chicago’s shoreline “forever open, clear and free”? Frankly, at this point I’m not sure.

But thanks in large part to Friends of the Parks’ lawsuit, the Force is likely no longer with us. v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the amount of additional money the city would have to raise to see through Mayor Emanuel’s McCormick Place plan. The correct amount is $1.165 billion.