As if the White House and “Star Wars” creator George Lucas needed help.
But last week, that’s exactly what happened in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been trying to clear prime space – against the wishes of park advocates – for Barack Obama’s presidential library and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.
First, word spread that Cassandra Francis, the loudest voice in the battle to keep the projects out of green space, resigned as president of the Friends of the Parks advocacy group. Within 36 hours, a bill designed to make it easier to build on the kinds of plots she’s been pushing to protect quickly passed through the state legislature. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R-Ill.) can sign any day.
“Currying favor for the moment, craven politicians have betrayed this public trust and inheritance,” wrote one resident to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“If the governor signs this bill,” another man wrote, the “rich, the powerful, and the politically well connected — the 1 percenters, which includes George Lucas and the Obamas — will win, as they always seem to do, while the rest of us will lose precious public space as well as the concept behind that space.”
And the now-leaderless Friends of the Parks issued a blistering criticism of its own.
“It basically authorizes the City to run a mall up and down the Lake so long as they call it a museum. It is a complete blank check to abdicate the legal duty of protecting the Lake for the people of this State and for generations to come.”
The Lucas Museum is proposed for a spot on Lake Michigan next to Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears. The initial design would look perfectly in place on the water — as long as you’re living on a planet that serves Bantha milk. The Obama museum has multiple options as the foundation mulls which to select, with proposals from Chicago, New York and Hawaii. The one that sparked the legislation is a proposal by the University of Chicago to build on 22 acres inside Washington Park, which, having been designed by the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (University of Chicago has also proposed a site in Jackson Park.) The idea of replacing even a section of Olmsted’s work – the park covers more than 350 acres in total – has naturally not pleased landscape advocates.
“It really opens the door for other cities to display a similar hubris to grab designated parkland,” Charles Birnbaum, the founder and president of the D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, told the Post. “The fact that the president of the university is saying, ‘I want that for [the Obama library] and the fact that it was mapped as parkland was irrelevant.’”
So where will this lead? The Obama Foundation and Lucas representatives wouldn’t respond to multiple requests for interviews. Neither would explain why other spots favored by park advocates – the 49-acre former site of the Michael Reese Hospital, for example – aren’t in the mix. Those pushing the Washington Park plot for the library point to polls showing public support for the idea without conceding that what’s right and what’s convenient in the moment aren’t always the same thing.
Chicago’s reputation for backroom deals also hasn’t helped. There have been snickers about Obama’s close ties to the city, particularly those with his former Chief of Staff Emanuel and Susan Sher, who served as first lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff and now is a senior adviser to University of Chicago leaders. Wasn’t that Sher breaking matzo with the Obamas at the White House Seder earlier this month?
Sher, in an interview with the Post, shrugged off the idea that her friendship with the Obamas would play into the selection.
“This decision about where they’re going to put their library, it’s such an important decision, it’s going to be where it is forever,” she said. “I can’t imagine they would make that a decision that’s other than what they want for their legacy.”
As the library site selection looms – reportedly any day – one voice that’s been largely silenced is Francis. Back in January, she gave the Post a brief tour of the Lucas site. On a small hill, she pointed out the views of the lake and the concerns she had of an overbuilt waterfront. Francis admitted the site was far from picturesque – Soldier Field sits to one side, the grim, McCormick Lakeside Center to another and a parking lots marks the plot itself. But that’s not the point, she said. The Friends of the Parks filed a lawsuit in November to block the project because Lake Michigan, the group contended, needed to be kept publicly accessible.
This week, in an interview with the Post, Francis dismissed reports she was pushed out. Her husband, a Northwestern University law professor, has been tapped to start a program in Qatar. Francis, who heads off to the Middle East in May, said she put off leaving as long as she could.
With her exit, park advocates lose an aggressive voice who also doesn’t hesitate to take advantages of every resource. Like the telephone. Last year, wanting to her voice her concerns to Lucas, Francis picked up the phone and called the movie-maker’s wife, Mellody Hobson, a Chicago native who runs an investment company.
As she recounted this that day in January, Francis was asked if she worried that Lucas, as he has threatened, might take his project elsewhere if things get too hairy in Chicago.
“We absolutely want the Lucas Museum to come to Chicago. I personally grew up with ‘Star Wars,’” she said, pointing to the now abandoned Reese site. “I still have a crush on Luke Skywalker. It’s a wonderful institution to welcome to the city. However, if they move a half-mile south, to the other side of Lake Shore Drive, we approve the site, the community approves the site and it will provide important economic development.”