Following Lucas Museum Exit, What’s Next for Friends of the Parks?

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Now that it’s clear that “Star Wars” creator George Lucas will be taking his artifacts, memorabilia, cartoons and artwork to a town potentially more welcoming to his Museum of Narrative Art than Chicago proved to be, what of the small nonprofit group that fell the mighty filmmaker and his supporter, Mayor Rahm Emanuel?

Friends of the Parks, a nonprofit founded in 1975 with the aim to “preserve, protect, improve and promote the use of parks and open spaces throughout Chicago for the enjoyment of all residents and visitors,” earned U.S. District Judge John Darrah’s support to argue its case. Specifically, that the museum, which was to be erected on lakefront land south of Soldier Field, did not meet the standard of providing a public value strong enough to outweigh the legal precedent set in 1892 to keep the lakefront “forever open, clear and free.”

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“There’s more than a 100-year history here in Chicago of protecting our lakefront from development, based on this public trust doctrine, which actually goes back to British law and beyond,” said Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry.

The land belongs to residents of Illinois, she added. Not the government. “There has to be a very serious inquiry into the balance between the public interest and the private benefit if there is to be development on that land.”

In the days following Lucas’ statement June 24 that he was withdrawing his museum proposal, the preservation group has been both applauded – notably by community activists and Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin – and vilified as a group of unelected, elitist, navel-gazing spoilers who stopped a $770 million project (by some reports) that would have attracted additional tourists to the city, from going forward.

Irizarry said some folks were quick to lay blame without fully understanding what was at stake. Others, she said, were well informed but simply didn't agree with the group's stance.

“The decision to leave Chicago was that of Mr. Lucas, not of Friends of the Parks,” Irizarry said.

But not all of the responses have been negative. “We also have lots of folks sending in checks and thanking us for standing firm on defending our lakefront,” Irizarry said.

Some critics have taken to calling the group Friends of the Parking Lot.

“A lot of Chicagoans don’t know the history behind the actual parking lot that we’re talking about,” Irizarry said.

The city agreed to turn the lot into parkland as part of the 1990 McCormick Place expansion project, she said. “But the city has reneged on its commitment to turn that space into parkland and reduce parking spaces on the east side of the drive. They were supposed to have figured out how to get some of that Bears parking over on the west side of the drive, but they have found it more beneficial to take advantage of the revenue that comes from those parking lots.

“It is indeed the city that has been the lover of that parking lot.”

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