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.
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.
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.