Friends of the Parks president Cassandra Francis announces its lawsuit at a press conference November 13.
Friends of the Parks president Cassandra Francis announces its lawsuit at a press conference November 13. Credit: AP Photo/Sun-Times Media, Brian Jackson

Better Government Association president Andy Shaw had a piece of hot news for the opening of the BGA’s forum on the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art at the Union League Club last Wednesday.

Word had been leaked that afternoon that Friends of the Parks would be filing suit the next day to stop the museum from building on Park District land on the Chicago lakefront. And FOTP president Cassandra Francis was one of the event’s panelists.

Although Francis deferred most details about the suit to a press conference scheduled for Thursday, Shaw’s announcement created a buzz and energized the discussion that followed with Francis and panelists Lee Bey of the University of Chicago and Gail Spreen of the Streeterville residents’ group SOAR. (The Chicago Park District and the city had declined to participate.)

And he lit the room up again when he passed on a “cautionary tale” that was told to him by “someone with very keen knowledge of the Lucas process,” who wanted to share something the audience “ought to understand very clearly.”

“‘George Lucas is a warm and generous guy,'” Shaw said he was told, “‘but he’s not negotiating sites here. If this site doesn’t fly, the museum will fly to another city.'”

Given what happened when Lucas was denied the location he wanted in San Francisco, Shaw said, “there’s a strong likelihood that if this site is rejected, we’re saying good-bye to the museum.” In light of that, he asked the panelists to weigh in on “whether or not it’s worth losing the museum” to save the site.

Bey, an arts administrator and architecture critic who was on the mayor’s site selection task force, initially backed away from the question, but Francis jumped in: “Just as a Chicagoan,” she said, “that sort of ultimatum doesn’t sit well with me.” The audience broke into applause.

Francis—who’s careful to say that Friends of the Parks welcomes the Lucas Museum to Chicago, just not on the proposed site—also observed that the controversial design, while not the issue for her group, has “galvanized” public opposition. But that’s not the public’s only objection, she noted. The rendering by architect Ma Yansong shows zero net new green space in place of the parking lots currently located on the site. The cost of transportation improvements to the area will be borne by the public, and no figure has been put on the endowment that’ll maintain the museum. Most startling, the building has mushroomed to more than four times its initial size, though its construction budget apparently still stands at $300 million to $400 million.

The next morning Francis lined up with five FOTP board members in front of Richard Haas’s mural Chicago Architecture in City Hall, and announced to a phalanx of video cameras that “Chicago’s public lakefront is not free for the taking” and that Friends of the Parks had indeed filed suit against the Chicago Park District and the city.

FOTP had warned for months that it would do exactly this if there wasn’t a change in the Lucas Museum site, but the announcement had a couple of surprising wrinkles. The suit had been filed in federal court, not in Cook County. And the mantra repeatedly cited by FOTP in the preceding months—that the Lucas Museum location is a violation of the city’s lakefront protection ordinance—was glaringly absent.

Instead FOTP is accusing the Park District and the city of violating the state’s public trust doctrine, which forbids private development on “property recovered from the waters of Lake Michigan.”

In other words: landfill.

According to the complaint, Lake Michigan landfill is held in trust not by the city, but by the state of Illinois. Under the terms of that trust, it can only be “preserved as a natural resource and open space equally available to Illinois citizens.” The suit charges that local government has no right “to build on or dispose of such trust property” without the consent of the state legislature, and maintains that if it were to do so, it would be a violation of the due process and equal protection rights of the people of Illinois.

Presto: it’s no longer just a question of whether the city is trampling its own, potentially changeable lakefront protection ordinance, but a federal case involving the constitutional rights of citizens.

There’s an element of deja vu in all this. Veteran FOTP board members were around in the early aughts, when the group filed two lawsuits to prevent the addition of a massive seating bowl to Soldier Field. Neither of those suits was successful in stopping the now-familiar spaceship from setting down atop the classical facade of the old stadium.

But attorney Thomas Geoghegan, also speaking at the press conference, said this situation is very different. The Soldier Field redesign had been authorized by the state legislature, and the stadium already existed. In this case, Geoghegan said, “there is going to be created a brand-new giant structure—looking at the design, you could even say an elephantine structure—that wasn’t there before.”

And he isn’t bothered by the fact that a substantial amount of Chicago is already standing on landfill. That’s history, Geoghegan said: “This fight is about preserving what’s left of open public lakefront land for the future.”

Francis hit the same “slippery slope” note. Allow this, she said, and a few years from now, “Where will we put the Richard Branson museum?”