Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chicago doesn't have to rubber-stamp the Lucas Museum

Posted By on 06.25.14 at 03:51 PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel swears the Lucas Museum wont cost taxpayers a cent. We might want to ask a few questions anyway.
  • Brian Jackson/Sun-Times Media
  • Mayor Rahm Emanuel swears the Lucas Museum won't cost taxpayers a cent. We might want to ask a few questions anyway.
Soon after George Lucas gave Mayor Emanuel the thumbs-up, the mayor's press office issued one of its classic good-news press releases.

It was entitled "What People Are Saying About the Lucas Museum Coming to Chicago"—as if it were based on random interviews with people on the street, as opposed to canned quotes put together by the mayor's operatives.

Congressman Danny Davis said: "I am thrilled to join all Chicagoans in welcoming George and adding this incredible cultural institution to our museum campus."

And Alderman Will Burns said: "The Lucas Museum will be a great addition to Chicago's popular museum campus."

And Jorge Ramirez, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said: "This is a major win for Chicago and our workers."

And Alderman Patrick O'Connor said: "Whatever you want, boss!"

Just kidding about Alderman O'Connor's remark. Though that pretty much sums up the reaction of our corporate, political, and cultural leaders who, as usual, are ready to roll over at the mayor's command.

Even if they don't know exactly what he's got them rolling over for.

OK, here are the details:

Actually, the mayor has released almost no details about this project. So, at the very least, we might want to hold off on turning cartwheels just because Lucas chose us over San Francisco and Los Angeles.

As near as I can tell, Mayor Emanuel is treating the lakefront as an extension of his backyard, which he's free to give away to Lucas, the filmmaker. The mayor has said he intends to put the Lucas museum on land now used for parking lots just south of Soldier Field.

To head off any public opposition, he tells us it won't cost the public a dime.

So shut up and be happy, everybody!

Well, I hate to be the party pooper, but nobody should believe the mayor's no-money pledge.

In fact, as a rule, you should never, ever believe anything a mayor tells you when it comes to financing a deal that he desperately wants—a lesson we ought to have learned from the Olympic debacle.

Mayor Daley swore it wouldn't cost the public anything to stage those games, even as as he was strong-arming the City Council into giving him a blank check for the Olympic effort.

But it will cost money to tear up that land—and what if there are contaminants beneath those lots? That'll cost even more.

Someone's going to have to foot the bill. My bet is that it won't be George Lucas.

And another thing—this is not the mayor's land to give to George Lucas. It's publicly owned property that's governed by the lakefront protection ordinance, which says "in no instance will further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive.”

As a result, there has be a public hearing by the Plan Commission and the deal has to be approved by the City Council.

OK, these are rubber-stamp entities.

But there are some people in this town who are gearing up to fight against putting the museum next to Soldier Field.

That brings me to another lesson Mayor Daley's ill-fated Olympic dream should have taught us: never assume that every deal is done just because the mayor wants it.

Yes, generally, that's the case. Especially when it's a deal involving poor south- or west-siders. That's why the mayor felt free to close those mental-health clinics in high-crime areas—perhaps his dirtiest deed.

But the museum is not proposed for a helpless low-income community. It's proposed for valuable lakefront land that's highly prized by environmentalists and park enthusiasts, some of whom are not controlled by the mayor. As hard as that is to believe.

Cassandra Francis, executive director of Friends of the Parks, tells me her group is ready to go to court before it allows the mayor to build on that site.

If anyone should appreciate the resolve of Chicago's open-land activists, it's George Lucas.

After all, he got married at Promontory Point—a site he probably chose because it's one of the most gorgeous stretches of lakefront land in Chicago.

And it's so gorgeous precisely because an energetic band of kick-ass activists had the fortitude to fight Mayor Daley to keep him from mucking it up with a horrendous revetment project.

After he lost that fight, Mayor Daley threw one of his classic hissy fits, saying he didn't care if Promontory Point fell into the lake.

Of course, that didn't stop him from showing up to George Lucas's wedding, where he probably danced the Funky Chicken.

On top of everything else, our powerful mayors apparently have no shame.

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