How Friends of the Parks Saved a Parking Lot and Killed the Lucas Museum

The original Lucas Museum plan called for building on Soldier Field’s south lot. Photo: Chris Riha, Chicago Reader

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership allows Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We syndicate a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

As a sustainable ransportation advocate, I’m jazzed whenever land that’s been unnecessarily 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 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.”

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

“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.”

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.

  • Chicagoan

    I think that this is a fair retort to Mr. Greenfield’s article.

    My primary concern is that Mayor Emanuel has offered Mr. Lucas 17 acres of lakefront property for 99 years, at a cost of $10.00.

    This deal also offers Mr. Lucas the chance to re-sign the lease two times on top of that.

    That’s 297 years that this lakefront property will be leased to Mr. Lucas. Who knows how this land will look 25 years on, let alone 297 years. I think that their parking lot to park land conversion argument is fair.

  • This is short-sighted. At any time in the future, the parking lot can be turned into a park. If there’s a museum on it, that can’t be done. Finding and creating new parkland inland is harder to do than using existing parkland on the lakefront. I’m disappointed this false dichotomy, which the mayor loved to throw all of the press, is the spin you put on it.

  • I’ve taken regular lunchtime walks around the area in question for
    almost 20 years, I’m guessing few of the FOTP protagonists can say the
    same thing. If they had been proactive in terms of this space prior to the Lucas Museum proposal they’d have a bit more of a case as far the usage is concerned, but as it stands saying the space “can” be turned into a park is meaningless. The parking lots at every other beach meet the same criteria, and more underused turfgrass areas aren’t what people want from their lakefront in Chicago anymore, that primal need disappeared when the City’s air became breathable and we stopped burning coal for heat and to power the railroads.

    Also, calling this “lakefront” property also requires a bit of suspension of disbelief when you consider that Burnham Harbor is gated and not accessible to the general public, and that for all intents and purposes Northerly Island and 12th Street are the lakefront. No matter what happens with the proposed area, it is not going to transition into publicly accessible waterfront (unless you can afford Burnham Harbor’s rental fees).

    All that said, this is a unique case/rare time I’m not in agreement with FOTP. I think fighting on principle is a noble cause, and frankly, if Rahm’s Administration cannot meet legal muster with its plans than they screwed up big time and a future Mayor can try a different approach. Lucas seems well meaning (he’ll be dead long before that single 99 year lease ends), but there will be plenty of other opportunities, this is indeed priceless real estate no matter how you look at it.

  • 5ive

    I’m someone who’s broadly in support of a group like FotP’s mission, but this has really soured me on the organization. From now on, I’ll have a knee-jerk opposition to anything Friends of the Parks supports. And I won’t shake the hand of a member of the group when I meet them at an event.

  • rohmen

    As is common in any litigation, the FOTP position and the City’s position are black and white, while the reality is a shade of gray.

    The reality is that (by all accounts following the soldier field renovation) the land under the parking lot is heavily contaminated. It’s not going to be converted to park land without a massive remediation project being undertaken—and such a project is likely out of reach for decades given this City’s financial position (the realities of litigation means toxicity in soil would have to be addressed prior to this parcel becoming green space of any sort). So while FOTP is technically correct that the land could be converted to park land, there is almost zero chance of that happening in anyone’s lifetime that is posting here.

    I thought FOTP was spot on in its challenge to the children’s museum, and that land was able to be converted over to public use considering it really was usable parkland to begin with. Here, however, I do believe (and I think John’s article is fair on this) that FTOP is fighting over principle rather than the reality of how that land will potentially be utilized going forward.

  • Pat

    I applaud the FotP in standing their ground.

    If we allow this, what happens when the next “world class museum” comes knocking?

  • Anne A

    I’m very frustrated with the negative effects this lawsuit has had on FOTP as an organization. The whole thing leaves me with very mixed feelings. On principle, I get their point in pursuing the lawsuit, but pushing it to the point where it nearly destroys the organization is counterproductive.

    I wish that Rahm Emanuel had never pushed the idea of putting the Lucas Museum on the lakefront site. The McCormick Place idea isn’t any better. Using the vacant hospital campus would make so much more sense – no conflict about putting on the lakefront, and putting vacant land that’s costing us $$$$$ to better use.

  • JacobEPeters

    God I hope I am alive to see the day that this and the myriad of other parking lots that claim our most prime recreation space are turned into green space. I just don’t even see it on the horizon.

  • Chicagoan

    What is making you think that there’s “zero chance” of this lakefront property becoming park land, anywhere up to 75 years from today?

  • Sterling Archer

    If we are replacing a parking lot with this “world class museum”, then let them come.

  • JacobEPeters

    If the original argument against using Michael Reese was avoiding using taxpayer dollars, why isn’t that option realistically explored now that $500 million has been proposed to clear the Lakeside Center for the Lucas Museum?

  • JacobEPeters

    If we’re replacing a parking lot with a museum & a park, I will take it every day…& so would every other neighborhood in the city.

  • what_eva

    Lucas wants an iconic site, he’s not going to take Reese.

  • what_eva

    if said world class museum wants to come in and replace a parking lot with a bunch of parkland in addition to their building, then sign me up

  • Leggy Mountbatten

    Did you happen to notice the new acres of land that just opened up by Theater on the Lake? there’s new lakefront land created all the time.

  • rohmen

    Because, to be honest, the City has much, much more pressing needs (including in preserving other park land) than spending multiple millions of dollars in depaving and converting a massive parking lot capping allegedly heavily contaminated land into green space.

    The remediation cost, and the pressure from McPier, is why it stayed a parking lot when Soldier Field was renovated in the first place. I don’t see many of those factors changing anytime soon.

  • what_eva

    The Children’s Museum had the additional burden of the Montgomery Ward decisions, which applies to Grant Park, but not this area.

  • what_eva

    Where’s the money coming from?

  • JacobEPeters

    wait…the $1.2 billion is in ADDITION to the $700 million Lucas is ponying up?

    I am just going to say that a Lucas Museum at 27th & Lake Park starts to look real nice in tandem w/ a 29th street Green Line station, and a land bridge over LSD & the McCormick Place truck staging area.

  • JacobEPeters

    Reese is pretty iconic if you connect it to the lakefront with a futuristic land bridge. Plus the views of the skyline to the north are about as unobstructed as they come.

  • rohmen

    That, and Maggie Daley park was already an actual, functional park space (though obviously horribly underutilized), which I think many viewed as worth preserving for the public interest. Challenging the children’s museum was a no-brainer.

    Here, however, I think questioning FOTP’s stance is genuinely fair whether they may have legal support for the argument or not. I guess it comes down to whether people view the museum as an improvement to that area (I do), and whether an improvement today that incorporates a private museum outweighs the potential of some undefined improvement in the future that is solely public access (again, I do).

  • Jeff Gio

    Praire Shores is really heartbreaking – a museum might spur some desperately needed infill development

  • Anne A

    Yes, YES!!! A Lucas Museum on the vacant Michael Reese site could be a huge win.

  • There is substantial contamination underneath the site, but the contaminants are related to materials resulting from the demolition of the old Park Administration building and the Soldier Field renovation, by all accounts they aren’t posing any threat as they are solids (asbestos, etc) that are within an engineered barrier keeping them from dispersing into the lake or adjacent soil/lakefill.

    So it’s not a good situation, but, I think the site would be just fine to convert to parkland, or anything surface level. The entire lakefront was engineered out of waste, so I think the specific problem with the Lucas Museum proposal was due to
    how those lurking toxic materials would conflict with underground parking (which was desirable as
    that helped create green space).

  • Chicagoan

    I can’t forecast the future’s political climate, but I think it seems kind of nuts to assume there’s “zero chance” of this lakefront property becoming park land sometime down the line.

  • what_eva

    It is not lakefront, that’s what Lucas wants, period. He already walked away from SF, he’s not taking Reese.

  • what_eva

    If the whole basis of the lawsuit is the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, I don’t get why this isn’t easy for the city. It’s quite different from “Forever Open, Free and Clear” which is backed by multiple IL Supreme Court decisions. If all that’s blocking this is an ordinance, then pass a new one with an exception. Presto, no grounds for lawsuit.

    I feel like there has to be more to the lawsuit.

  • JacobEPeters

    It is closer to the open lake than the parking lot site. The parking lot is ~1800ft from the non harbor side of Northerly Island. Michael Reese is only ~1200ft from the shore if a connection is made over the staging yard & LSD around 29th street.

  • It’s a version of privatizing park land. If it is really not a vanity museum then do it with public ownership. So is this deal similar to the Field Museum or the Shedd Aquarium?

    Too bad he didn’t propose this idea when Lake Shore Drive used to split around the Field Museum and Soldier Field, with northbound on the east side and south on the west. Then it wouldn’t be between LSD and the lake. It would be between LSD and LSD.

    And yeah, why didn’t that parking lot get dealt with during the Bears giveaway. It should have been eliminated then.

    And while we are at it, doesn’t the Parking deal require all those spots to be replaced? Oh wait…

  • what_eva

    Reese checks no boxes because it’s on railroad tracks, not the lakefront. It would be a completely different story if Meigs was still in existance making the views from the south lot site not as good.

  • Chicagoan

    Could be stupid to ask, but was the “FirstMerit Bank Pavilion”, south of the Adler Planetarium ever vetted?

    I think that site would work great in terms of proximity to the Museum Campus.

    I have no idea about the logistics of choosing that site, though.

  • Jeff Gio

    The real affront to Chicago’s lakeside is the monstrous Lake Point Tower. A monstrous 1,500 foot perimeter parking podium greets tourists as they travel to and from Navy Pier.

    Build the Lucas Museum there

  • JacobEPeters

    You’re defensive as if I am arguing for Michael Reese over the south lot. CALM DOWN, I’m saying that replacing Lakeside Center is idiotic due to cost, and that it undermines the previous argument from the city that Michael Reese was a non starter due to the fact that the land it sits on was bought with taxpayer money.

  • JacobEPeters

    or on Navy Pier where a private hotel is being built literally on top of the lake, not it’s front, it’s top.

  • Obesa Adipose

    Right, John, replace one mistake with another. At least with the asphalt parking lot all it takes to clear it away is a bulldozer; however, the Lucas roadside attraction will be here forever.

  • rohmen

    Yeah, most of it is from the soldier field renovation, but apparently it was a dumping ground as far back as the fire, and they have found some pretty dodgy stuff in the soil tests.

    This article discusses it a bit:

    Not sure what the testing discussed in this article actually showed (assuming it was done), but I always understood the whole idea is that Lucas was willing to take on the remediation risk—whatever it might be. So, maybe he would get lucky, and it’s only a $50,000 remediation. But if he gets unlucky, and it’ll cost millions to clean the site up, he still does it. That’s just risk the City is likely not going to touch itself in the foreseeable future, IMHO

  • Curtis James

    The problem is that once you make an exceptions, the door is open for other exceptions — all kinds of exceptions. And then the hundred-story condos start going up on the lakefront. Surely there is another city that will give Lucas whatever he wants so he can build his colossal monument to his own vanity.

  • Dennis McClendon

    The FotP lawsuit is not based on the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which only requires the Plan Commission to use its blue rubber stamp as well as the normal one. The lawsuit is based on the public trust doctrine, the common-law concept that the waters of Lake Michigan (and any landfill therein) is held by the State of Illinois in trust for the people. As such, it cannot be conveyed by sale or long-term lease to a private entity.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Yes, the lawsuit is based on the public trust doctrine, but when FOTP originally voiced their opposition to the plan, they cited the Lakefront Protection Ordinance:

  • ardecila

    Outdoor concerts, even ones charging admission, are apparently deemed to be acceptable uses of public land. Also, the pavilion is a temporary structure.

  • Mcass777

    This parking lot should be in (or possible has been in) the parking lot madness. With a museum like Lucas, it will become a destination. Maybe not for you or me, but it will be a world wide destination. That is an honor that wipes away a site this blog rallies against. This is a location that, no doubt, will have divvy bikes and invites pedestrians. Suck it up, this is not eminent domain to build a highway.

  • Mcass777

    Keep dreaming for parkland. I never understood why this lot was not put underground when SF was rebuilt. It won’t happen now or ever. No revenue

  • Mcass777

    Did they dump the building waste into the parking lot? I thought this lot was untouched in the renovation. Maybe you mean the Waldron deck, but I am not sure if this area was filled in.

  • Mcass777

    There is a better chance of a future city council allowing fracking at this site than being turned into a park!

  • Mcass777

    Well global warming could put this miles from the lake in centuries to come – or the glacier will slowly eat it up for thousands of years

  • The Lucas museum info has changed so many times I could definitely be off in terms which buried mess of junk is where, but suffice it to say that the whole area would need severe remediation if you tried to go deep, the engineered barrier holding back the latest batch of toxic materials making a bad (but contained) situation worse. I have the EPA tests the BGA got via FOIA, hit me up if you’d like a copy (they are wonky, but fascinating).

  • Here’s a bit more:

    One common urban myth is there’s Chicago Fire landfill here, but that was used up filling just part of Grant Park, this part of the lake wasn’t filled until much later, prompted by the 1909 Plan of Chicago.

    Can’t reccomend this highly enough:

  • Mike McCune
  • troll e troll

    thank you for the link.


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