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Mellody Hobson Unloads On Friends of Parks Over Lucas Museum Battle

By David Matthews | May 3, 2016 9:56am | Updated on May 3, 2016 4:58pm
 The Lucas Museum as it could look near McCormick Place.
The Lucas Museum as it could look near McCormick Place.
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Lucas Museum of Narrative Art

DOWNTOWN —  Mellody Hobson, the wife of George Lucas, unloaded on the parks group that sued to block construction of his namesake museum, saying Tuesday the filmmaker is now "seriously pursuing" locations outside Chicago.

Hobson, a financier from Chicago, said Tuesday that they are taking their position public after the parks group, Friends of the Parks, rejected a "compromise location" near McCormick Place.

"My husband and I have worked in earnest for two years, side-by-side with every relevant city agency, community leader, and policy maker, to give what would be the largest philanthropic gift to an American city in the 21st century," Hobson said in a statement. "From the beginning, this process has been co-opted and hijacked by a small special interest group."

The news comes the same day Friends of the Parks, whose lawsuit prompted City Hall to scout new spots for the controversial museum, said Tuesday it is staying, or temporarily halting, its litigation as the city seeks state funding for a new museum site near McCormick Place that would add 12 acres of lakefront parkland.

But political observers didn't note the move as a white flag, or even an olive branch, to the city. Friends of the Parks still opposes a lakefront locale for the Lucas Museum, including the McCormick Place site the city is now pursuing, said Juanita Irizarry, the group's executive director. 

"It calls for us to choose between two priorities: parkland and saving the lakefront," Irizarry said. "While we would love more parkland, we don’t want to sell out our lakefront."

Hobson said the group's motives are misguided.

"While [the group] claim to be a ‘strong steward of Chicago and a partner to its progress,’ their actions and decision rob our state of more than $2 billion in economic benefits, thousands of jobs and countless educational opportunities for children and adults alike," Hobson said. "If the museum is forced to leave, it will be because of the Friends of the Parks and that is no victory for anyone."

The salvo comes about two weeks after the city announced a new museum site it is prioritizing at McCormick Place East, and two months after a federal judge agreed the parks group's lawsuit blocking museum construction on a Soldier Field parking lot could proceed.

Friends of the Parks has argued in court that the city's public lakefront should be preserved, and not sold to developers such as filmmaker George Lucas. When asked why her group would press pause on its lawsuit while railing against the museum's new proposed site that's also on the lakefront, Irizarry said Friends of the Parks is simply attempting to save the court's time. The group received 18,000 pages of documents from City Hall two weeks ago pertaining to the legal fight. 

"It’s really not a good use of our resources or city resources or the court's time for us to spend time in court over a project [site] the city is moving away from as a priority," Irizarry said. 

The Lakeside Center at McCormick Place East would be demolished and replaced with the Lucas Museum under the city's new plan, which would also add 12 acres of new parkland to the Downtown lakefront. The city would then replace the lost convention space with a new McCormick Place building straddling Lake Shore Drive. Filmmaker George Lucas would still pay to build his museum.

But the city expects the new plan would still need $1.2 billion in new funding, which would require state approval. Pausing the lawsuit gives city officials necessary time to lobby for such funding before the current General Assembly session ends May 31, city lawyers have argued in recent court filings. 

Irizarry thinks it's "highly unlikely" the city secures the $1.2 billion in state funding it needs for the McCormick Place plan. If it does, she said her group will have to discuss its next steps then. She stopped short of threatening a new lawsuit over the city's new proposed site, indicating Friends of the Parks will wait to see what the state's General Assembly and Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) decide. 

The city and park district last year gave Lucas the approval to build his museum on a Soldier Field parking lot, but the parks group's lawsuit arguing that Chicago's lakefront should be preserved led city officials to look for alternative sites. The next court date in the case is scheduled for May 10.

Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the city's law department, declined to comment. 

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