Getting a solid foundation for George Lucas’ Museum of Narrative Arts in Chicago has proven difficult, but not impossible. The issue: prime lakefront property. Per law this is not land that is meant to be built on by private interests and by tradition supposed to remain “forever clear and free”, but Lucas is dead set on waterfront property. He demands too much and Mayor Rahm Emanuel promises too much. The Friend’s of the Parks are ensuring the site stays in legal limbo. All three are failing to get to a solution to the impass. As usual, a reasonable and thoughtful one exists, essentially offered for free by a local architect and published in the Chicago Tribune.
Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic has called on Lucas and Emanuel to move the museum out of the park, but not off the lakefront. He argues that the Mayor, Lucas, and local architects have to come up with creative alternatives, because, as he puts it, the arguments for building on the lakefront east of Lake Shore Drive are a “narrative with no basis in reality.” Indeed, he takes his call the next step and outright promotes an alternative: Chicago architect Thomas Hickey proposes building a deck over the train tracks from McCormick Place to 18th Street.
Calling this a “stroke of genius” is equal parts under- and overstatement. Like so many controversial projects and urban planning issues in Chicago the best and most impactful solutions often mix simplicity or obviousness. The deck idea offered up by Hickey addresses a number of issues near the museum’s future home.
The museum project in its original incarnation is a massive urban planning conundrum. It goes further than the clash of private and public interests. Not a single party is being all that creative in their ideas and fail to see the potential to promote a robust discussion about major urban planning on the Near South Side from green space, to transportation, to economic and cultural development. By virtue of design, Hickey’s project forces the conversation in that direction.
The fight over the museum started when Lucas, who was deciding between sites in San Francisco and Chicago, settled on Chicago, because unlike San Francisco it offered a water front site. Like San Francisco, this waterfront site was no guarantee nor was it ever and probably even less guaranteed. Emanuel offered more than he could actually promise and either assumed or hoped he’d be able to nab land that isn’t supposed to be built on by private interests. For many, this land shouldn’t be built on, period.
The site in question is currently a Chicago Park District parking lot. The museum appears to be a better alternative, but only until we acknowledge two important details. First, the site is under the protection of Illinois public trust doctrines stipulating certain natural and cultural sites are to be preserved for the public’s benefit including lakefront parkland. The parking lot remains public property. Secondly, the site might be a parking lot now, but the fact remains a private building forever removes the property from the public realm.
Back to the deck over the Metra Electric tracks, the stroke of architectural and urban planning genius. This idea works so impressively well, because it solves the issue of lakefront access for Lucas while opening up a more robust conversation about urban planning for this neighborhood with far reaching impacts.
The architectural solution is rather straightforward as is the parkland: according to Hickey’s design, the deck would accommodate a structure that is similar to the one proposed with the exception that is has a thinner, longer footprint. The parking lot in question would also be transformed into new green space connecting the museum directly to the lake over Lake Shore Drive via the deck, which would cover both the railroad and a replacement parking lot.
So far, so good.
It gets better though.
The decks location over the Metra Electric tracks and wedged between the Prairie District/South Loop and lakefront parks integrates the museum into the neighborhood, the parks, and the Museum Campus (kind of), but affects rail infrastructure below. Building a deck is a chance to make improvements that would either create immediate benefit or be part of long-term projects. A side benefit is more financing from more parties, lowering fiscal burdens overall. I’m even willing to endorse public funds for parts of the project with major public benefit. (Are you listening Mr. Lucas?)
The simplest benefit is greater access to the lake from the South Loop. Currently, the only path between Roosevelt Road and 31st Street is a walkway at 18th Street that has to weave its way around train tracks, a station, and Lake Shore Drive. The deck provides a more direct path to the parks and potentially a second one from Cullerton Street, which is close to the center of the entertainment district around McCormick Place. The Cullerton St. access point integrates the site into the neighborhood around the convention center, which Kamin argues is a more practical, because of the geographic disconnect from the Museum Campus.
The effects on the Metra infrastructure below also raises the question of how this proposals impacts larger urban planning projects. The tracks, roads, and McCormick Place Busway (which could be turned into a BRT route integrated into a larger citywide network) would likely have to be reorganized to accommodate the new structure. This is a chance to do a number of things like improve track conditions and rebuild the 18th St. Station as a modern facility.
This the chance to include other projects into a larger comprehensive master plan. Take, for example, making improvements to the St. Charles Flyover (16th Street Connector). These tracks connect lakefront tracks to Union Station and are a key component of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association’s CrossRail Chicago. It would provide huge benefits to the neighborhood as a whole. Thru train services between the North, Northwest, West, and South Sides could finally be introduced on Metra infrastructure and give a boost to Emanuel’s wish for an express train service to O’Hare. While detractors of that project argue a direct O’Hare-Loop connection has few benefits many believe an express service with stops on the Near Northwest Side, McCormick Place, and Hyde Park is more viable.
At least from this writer’s perspective, this is the ideal proposal. Fiscally speaking, more parties might have to pony up some money, but they’d all share in the benefits: Lucas, gets his views of the lake and direct access to it and double the parkland (as does the public). He benefits from a train station immediately adjacent to his project, while the community benefits from a better station. The museum builds on the economic activity already happening in the neighborhood, and the Mayor might be able to put forward a viable O’Hare-Loop-South Side train link. If Hickey’s design does anything, it shows that there is a win-win-win-win solution.