CHICAGO – Opponents of George Lucas’ plan to build a museum along Chicago’s lakefront filed a lawsuit Thursday to try to kill the project, calling it an “assault on the shores of Lake Michigan” and urging the “Star Wars” creator to pick a different spot.
The federal lawsuit filed by Chicago advocacy group Friends of the Parks argues the city has no authority to hand over the land, citing a legal principle known as the public trust doctrine. That doctrine makes the state a trustee over natural resources and requires it to ensure open spaces are preserved and accessible to the public.
Group president Cassandra Francis says members aren’t against the museum, just its location along the lake.
“Chicago’s lakefront is the envy of waterfront cities throughout the world,” she told reporters. “The humongous scale of the museum is ... an assault to the shores of Lake Michigan.”
The lawsuit is the latest trouble for The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, where the filmmaker wants to enshrine his collection of art and movie memorabilia. The California native chose Chicago after negotiations over a waterfront site fell through with San Francisco.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel embraced the idea, and the city has offered to make the land available in a lease, with Lucas bankrolling construction and operation costs.
Generations of activists have fought to keep Chicago’s lakefront largely free from development and preserve it as public parkland and beaches.
Renderings released this month, depict a flowing white building topped with a hovering ring. One city council member ridiculed it as looking like “a palace for Jabba the Hutt.”
The land is currently a parking lot south of Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears.
But the lawsuit says that site, located within Burnham Park, consists entirely of land reclaimed from Lake Michigan, mostly in the 1920s. As such, it argues, the state of Illinois holds it as public trust property.
“Such trust property ... should be set aside and preserved ... for access to navigation, fishing and commerce on Lake Michigan,” the lawsuit says.
Building a private museum on the site – even if the land is leased rather than sold – would violate the legal doctrine, it argues.
A museum spokeswoman declined comment on the lawsuit. Emanuel’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Lucas and the Chicago Park District argue project could create significant new green space and enhance recreational, cultural and educational amenities of an area known as the Museum Campus. It’s already home to a natural history museum, an aquarium and a planetarium.
Francis said it would set a bad precedent and that leaving the site a parking lot is preferable.
“Once we build a building in this location, it will be forever precluded as open space,” she said.