Protecting Chicago's Lakefront From Darth Vader

A man runs along the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago. A proposed lakefront location for a George Lucas museum is being disputed among the city's activists and city councilmembers. Jim Young/Reuters

In most George Lucas movies, there's a pretty clear distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. Indiana Jones? Good. Nazis? Bad. Han Solo? Good. Darth Vader? Bad. But when it comes to his future museum in Chicago, the division isn't quite so clear-cut.

Covering everything from memorabilia to visual effects, the $400 million, 30,000-square-foot Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will explore "the evolution of the moving image," encompassing the filmmaker's well-known works like Star Wars, which he directed, and the Indiana Jones movies, which he produced and wrote, as well as essential cinema predecessors like Battleship Potemkin and Metropolis. The Narrative Art section of the museum—largely gathered from Lucas's own collection—will exhibit paintings by Renoir and Degas, illustrations from Norman Rockwell and Robert Crumb, comic art from Charles Schulz and Frank Miller, as well as children's art, pin-up imagery, photography and digital art works.

After failing to secure lands in Presidio National Park, near his home in Northern California, for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, the filmmaker was wooed to Chicago by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who sees the museum as a huge tourist draw. Lucas wanted a park setting for his collection, and was offered space on Chicago's Museum Campus, a lakefront park east of Lake Shore Drive that currently houses the Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of Natural History and the Soldier Field stadium.

Chicago's city council passed the zoning proposal at the end of October, despite nine councilmembers voting against it—and with good reason. The land offered to Lucas is part of the city's beloved lakefront. The nonprofit group Friends of the Park sued to turn down the museum proposal last year, believing that the land—which is actually a part of Lake Michigan that's been filled in—belongs to the Public Trust and should therefore be left open for park development only. While many, including the Mayor, have argued that the museum will improve the aesthetics of the land, which currently houses a parking lot, not everyone sees the building as the best solution.

Jerry Adelmann, CEO of the 52-year-old regional conservation organization Openlands, tells Newsweek that when dealing with a unique asset like the lakefront, his group understands that "you have to take the long view." While they have no opposition to the Lucas Museum coming to Chicago, Adelmann noted that its current proposed location is in violation of the 1973 Lakefront Ordinance Act, which was passed in response to the construction of Lake Point Tower and McCormick Place Convention Center, both built east of Lake Shore Drive. As the buildings encroached upon the shoreline, it became clear that steps had to be taken to preserve the lakefront, which many consider one of the city's greatest assets. The act states "in no instance will further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive."

That the museum will be publicly owned by the Chicago Parks District (after it is built with private funds) provides a kind of loophole, as the act bans only "private development." Still, it isn't the ownership but the permanent loss of undeveloped lakefront that concerns groups like Friends of the Park and Openlands.

Fighting against the museum's construction may seem like an unwinnable battle, but it's worthwhile for those invested in the lakefront's preservation, many of whom are tired of having the area shortchanged by corporate interests. "It's an important precedent for us," Adelmann says. "The concern is not just about this museum, but whether it will open the door to easier access to other sites down the road. Once you lose [the lakefront] to development, it's gone forever." He also notes that the open lakefront is as responsible for drawing tourists as any museum would be, but while museums can be built in other places, the city cannot move a lakefront. On November 10, a federal judge hearing the case against the museum at the U.S. District Court did not rule on the city's motion to throw out the lawsuit. Instead, Judge John Darrah gave Friends of the Museum more time to respond before the museum can bring its full Force to Chicago's lakefront. The next hearing is scheduled for February 4.