You might call it the Dark Side of politics, but in Chicago, is there any other side? Windy City preservationists are suing to block the construction of a so-called “Star Wars” museum after Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered to let George Lucas build the $400 million project on publicly owned lakefront land. The mayor has defended the proposal to lease the prime real estate to the billionaire Lucas for just $1 a year, insisting the project is on “solid legal ground,” the Sun Times reported.
What he hasn’t mentioned is the almost $50,000 worth of campaign donations he has received from those with vested interests in the project.
One of those donors is one of the museum’s key board members, who also happens to be Lucas’ wife. Mellody Hobson, a prominent Chicago businesswoman, is a major Emanuel supporter, contributing $31,500 to his 2011 mayoral race, according to campaign records. In fact, it was Hobson who apparently came up with the idea to build the museum in Chicago. The plan came to fruition after Lucas failed to get the project approved in San Francisco earlier this year.
“Don’t worry,” Hobson reportedly told Lucas. “I’ll talk to the mayor.”
Well-known in Chicago business and civic circles, Hobson is president of the Chicago-based Ariel Investments, in addition to being the current chairwoman of DreamWorks Animation SKG. She and Lucas married last summer, a wedding Emanuel attended.
Emanuel also received donations from executives of the Walt Disney Company, which bought Lucasfilm and the “Star Wars” franchise in 2012. They contributed a combined $13,800 to Emanuel’s campaigns. Bob Iger, chief executive, personally kicked in $5,300, records show. The donations from those with a direct interest in promoting Lucas’s work were part of a larger six-figure cash haul from the TV and film industries, whose wares will be promoted at the cinema-themed museum.
Lucas is personally bankrolling the construction of the facility, which was recently renamed the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. The museum will receive no funding from the city. But critics say the museum -- dubbed a “vanity project” by some in the local press -- is inappropriate for a swath of valuable public lakefront land that was meant for open spaces. The proposed site, south of Soldier Field football stadium, is currently home to two parking lots.
Critics say Lucas’ plans for the museum lack specifics, and that a preliminary agreement drawn up in September contains only vague descriptions of the types of exhibits that might be housed there. Citing controversial taxpayer subsidies for Soldier Field, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board declared its opposition to the museum, arguing that “while Lucas would build the structure that would bear his name, future Chicagoans risk being stuck with the costs of keeping it alive.”
In perhaps the most significant challenge to the proposal, a lawsuit filed earlier this week by the preservation group Friends of the Park said a task force appointed by Emanuel overstepped its authority when it recommended the lakefront site. The site, the group says, is composed of landfill recovered from Lake Michigan and was “dedicated to the public trust.”
“The purpose of the trust as previously declared by the Supreme Court of Illinois is to ensure that the property recovered from Lake Michigan is preserved as a natural resource and as improved physical environment and to ensure that the public has access to navigation, fishing and commerce on Lake Michigan,” the lawsuit states.
Kate LeFurgy, a spokeswoman for the Lucas Museum, declined to comment on the lawsuit. “We remain focused and committed to Chicago,” she said.
A spokesperson for Emanuel’s office did not return requests for comment.
Friends of the Park said it is not opposed to Lucas building the museum somewhere else in the city, but as the Chicago Tribune reported, Emanuel’s promise of the lakefront site played heavily in the filmmaker’s decision-making.
Cue the Imperial March.