Talking alternatives to the Lucas Museum in Chicago

It’s official! George Lucas chose Chicago as the new home for the museum he is building to house his collection of movie memorabilia and private art collection. And boy is this one going to be a doozy of a conflict. The site chosen by Lucas, and offered by the City of Chicago, is Chicago Park District owned land south of Soldier Field and north of McCormick Place that is currently parking lots. The question becomes though, can and should this museum be built there considering it is a private development on land that the City declared must remain free of such development? Supporters of the museum argue for the benefits: jobs, financial investment in the city, a new cultural institution. Opponents point out that this is threatening public space and challenges the concept of keeping the lakefront forever clear and free. From either side, Chicago is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Yes, winning the bid for the Lucas museum is a huge boon, especially considering our West Coast rivals, San Francisco and Los Angeles, but it nonetheless was successful in large part because of the proposed site. Now, that’s not the entire story, the city’s significantly higher number of annual tourists certainly helped, but it does mean there will be a fight over where to put the museum.

Supporting arguments state that the museum belongs on the lakefront site, because it will add 12 acres of parkland in addition the museum itself that will take up only 5 acres of land. It would also be fitting to have the museum on that site adjacent to the Museum Campus and convention halls at McCormick Place. Opponents point out that if the museum doesn’t go there, the city has the freedom to build those parking lots into parks in the future, ones that would be 17 acres without the museum. Others are questioning why the museum is being put into an already built up area when parts of the city still need investment and large vacant pieces of land are scattered all over. Both sides makes good arguments. None of this takes into account an ordinance passed by the city in the late 1970s to prevent further development of non-park projects east of Lake Shore Drive.

Embracing river front property south of Roosevelt Road offers a fine alternative to lakefront property: it is waterfront land, would add new park land, and it would develop a long empty space close to the Loop in the heart of the burgeoning South Loop.

Embracing river front property south of Roosevelt Road offers a fine alternative to lakefront property: it is waterfront land, would add new park land, and it would develop a long empty space close to the Loop in the heart of the burgeoning South Loop.

All these issues considered, the biggest problem is there appears to have been and likely will not be a discussion about possible alternatives. But, without a doubt, there needs to be a discussion as to the most appropriate site for this museum long-term. If it is intended to be something enjoyed by the city for generations, then we should explore more options. Here are four sites I propose as potential alternatives.

1) Hyde Park at the southwest corner of 63rd Street and Stoney Island Avenue: Yes, the site isn’t right on the lake, but it is within walking distance and in an area that is a good mix developed (the University of Chicago is three blocks north), but still in need of investment. The site, which is currently part empty and partly occupied by a YMCA would necessitate relocating the YMCA, but with lots of availability nearby it wouldn’t be so far removed that the current YMCA would not longer be able to serve the community. The site is also adjacent to Jackson Park, the home of the Museum of Science and Industry and very close by to three proposed sites for the Obama Presidential Library. The DuSable Museum in Washington Park, the Oriental and Smart museums at the University of Chicago and the Robie House could collectively turn Hyde Park into ‘Museum Campus South’. The site is connected to the 63rd Street Metra, could help build momentum for an extension of the Green Line to 63rd and the 63rd Street Metra (just 0.7 miles).

2) The University of Illinois at Chicago: This is another site proposed for the Obama Presidential Library and if it isn’t used for that purpose it may be a good candidate for the Lucas Museum. The site is adjacent to the UIC-Halsted Blue Line stop, it is in an area with lots of activity (within walking distance of Greektown, the Near West Side, and Little Italy) and perhaps most importantly the site would offer sweeping views of the city’s impressive skyline.

This is the view of Chicago from the UIC campus, the proposed location of the Obama Library would have unobstructed views of this because of the Circle Interchange, which keeps the sight lines free; the Lucas Museum could benefit and have this view  if the library is not built on this sight.

This is the view of Chicago from the UIC campus, the proposed location of the Obama Library would have unobstructed views of this because of the Circle Interchange, which keeps the sight lines free; the Lucas Museum could benefit and have this view if the library is not built on this sight.

3) The vacant land south of Roosevelt Road at the Chicago River: While a lakefront site is ideal, perhaps a more reasonable option, and also the next best option, is a river front site. The long vacant area between Dearborn Park, Roosevelt Road, and Chinatown would not only give Lucas a waterfront site for this museum it is large enough to offer ample land for the museum’s building, parkland, access to the river, it is adjacent to Roosevelt Road and soon the Wells/Wentworth connector and a short 0.5 mile walk to the Museum Campus. It is a block from the Red, Green, and Orange line stop at Roosevelt and within walking distance of Chinatown’s main commercial area, Wentworth, Cermak and Archer avenues. Not only would this benefit the city by finally putting a huge piece of land to good use, it would expand new parkland in the process and extend the riverfront parkland along the South Branch of the Chicago River further north from Princeton in the south to Roosevelt in the north, an addition of 0.5 miles of riverfront park.

4) 23rd Street and State: As the entertainment and business district west of McCormick Place expands this site doesn’t seem unreasonable. The land wedged between State, the Stevenson Expressway and the off-ramp to Cermak Road would give the museum ample room to build and add green space in addition to absorbing Park No. 540 creating new parkland and adding to the attractions in the area. It would be a short walk from McCormick Place, the new Green Line stop on Cermak, the Chinatown Red Line stop, adjacent to State Street and offer views of the South Loop skyline while bringing investment further from the Loop and more into the neighborhoods.

None of these sites is perfect in any way. But each has its virtues and perhaps those are virtues that are in the long-run better for the city, its citizens, and its neighborhoods.

Obama’s presidential library: Make it a part of a South Side ‘master plan’

As we get within sight of the Obama’s last year as President the next campaign is heating up: the site for his presidential library. While bids have been presented by the University of Hawai’i and Columbia University in New York, the sheer number of bids coming out of Chicago in addition to the stronger connection the Obamas have with the city put it as the clear front-runner. The potential to have the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago is a boon for the city’s educational, cultural, and tourist scenes and if done well, the project could become a catalyst for positive impact in some of the city’s South Side neighborhoods and ones that need the most help. The bid has one glaring weakness though and it is the fact that beyond the location and the architecture and maybe some minimal streetscape changes, the bids as presented so far indicate little as to how the library can be used to create other improvements to life on the South Side.

This bid has the potential to be a great for the South Side, but it needs to go well beyond the area immediately surrounding the library’s site. Really, a master plan needs to be developed going forward that will be a cumulative effort on the part of the City of Chicago and the City’s local and regional planning agencies, the organizers of the library, and the communities involved to make sure the library isn’t just a one-off that gives quick short boost in economics. The library will in all likelihood be one of the more popular presidential libraries and really bring the number of cultural institutions on the South Side more in line with those in the Loop and on the North Side. The library alone won’t bring the improvements necessary for long-term growth and positive changes in community quality of life however, if it is just plopped down and the rest of the job left to fortune. The plans for the library need to consider two other major factors in improving the areas livability and solidify the South Side’s continued ability to grow: transportation access and green space access.

The reason a master plan that has the presidential library as its catalyzing element better prepares the South Side for redevelopment is that it can be the tool best fit to guide planning for the site in a manner that considers how the library can help long-term goals for positive change on the South Side be reasonably attained. While huge portions of the South Side need investment, the most practical place to begin is Hyde Park. It is one of the better connected and already more developed areas south of the Loop and arguing for more investment here that connects the neighborhood to the Loop and other parts of the South Side makes the most sense. By situating the library in this area not only is it conveniently located to the University of Chicago (and the Obama’s home) it would add to the growing number of sites already there: the Robie House, the Museum of Science and Industry, the DuSable Museum, and Jackson Park. Couple this with increasing development and tourism heading south and better connectivity to the rest of the city can be reasonable demanded, but is better supported because it would be in an area where it can be feasibly implemented.

One of the biggest problems for the area and areas further south is the limited access to transportation into/out of the South Side. A series of moderate to somewhat more intensive changes, but nothing on the scale of the Red Line south extension could dramatically improve transportation access on the South Side. With increasing need to get there, one of the first changes that could be made is turning at least the South Shore/95th Street and the Blue Island branches of the Metra Electric routes into high-frequency mass transit routes. Without even having to invest in new infrastructure the routes could be made into all-day speedy routes simply with new train sets designed for higher speeds and frequency. Think of it as an alternative version of the “L” serving the South Side. Such a change done in conjunction with the presidential library would not just serve people going there, but also thousands of transit users on the south/southeast sides of Chicago. Another potential option is to extend the Green Line all the way east along 63rd Street to the Metra Electric with a terminus at Jackson Park. This would serve as an intermodal transportation hub in Hyde Park/Kenwood that would better connect the CTA Green Line, Stoney Island busses, the Metra Electric routes, and South Shore Line.

Making sure green space is improved and not taken advantage of as developable land is also key to the success of a presidential library on the South Side. As of now, only two proposals call for using parkland for the library, both presented by the University of Chicago. If the goal of the City of Chicago is to improve quality of life for its residents, then the City must actively improve parkland. This should be the basis for preventing further intrusion into green spaces by any sort of building, public or private. However, this doesn’t mean that some green space wouldn’t be improved by such things. The site in Jackson Park should be off-limits to build, but the site proposed by the U of C at the South Shore Cultural Center actually is perhaps one of the few areas in the city where public parkland might be improved because of new construction.

Building the library here would do three things: first, it would help invigorate the South Shore Cultural Center with new life and could potentially be built as an addition to the current building lessening the need to build new structures. Second, it would potentially lead to the conversion of the golf course that currently surrounds the SSCC into a full-blown park accessible to the entire public and bringing continuous green space all the way from Hollywood Avenue in the north to 71st Street in the south. A plan for the library which includes using land fill to complete the small gap between 71st and 75th streets and connecting Jackson Park/the SSCC to Rainbow Beach Park would mean continuous park land all the way to 81st Street and potentially further considering the South Shore development site calls for lakefront park all the way to 95th Street. Finally, it would bring such a burst of activity to the park and cultural center that this spot could truly become a center for culture and community on the South Side.

Community, green space, access to transportation, better quality of life for Chicago residents (especially on the South Side): these are all things that fall within the political ideologies of the Obamas and improving those along side his presidential library would be a true way to honor the President as well as his family. The proposal for a Obama Presidential Library in Chicago need not exist in a vacuum and indeed it may be better done at a level that looks at how it can be a means to make other improvements to positively impact the communities there other than just bringing in tourists. The examples presented above are just a few amongst many potential improvements that can be made first in Hyde Park/Kenwood and then extended beyond those neighborhoods’ boarders into the larger South Side. Without a master plan that considers the long-range goals of the library and the ways in which those goals will be achieved the plans for the library will only be partially successful.