City offers George Lucas Soldier Field parking lots for museum

Task force says site south of Soldier Field would draw people from McCormick Place, also provide space for new city park

A task force appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel recommends the parking lots south of Soldier Field as the home for filmmaker George Lucas' collection of art and movie memorabilia, should the "Star Wars" creator choose Chicago over San Francisco for his planned museum.

Lucas is expected to select a site for his Lucas Cultural Arts Museum this summer, according to a museum spokeswoman.

The two Chicago Park District-owned parking lots are between the stadium and McCormick Place and within walking distance of the Museum Campus.

The land would be leased to the museum for $1, which is similar to arrangements other large cultural institutions have with the Park District. However, unlike other museums, the Lucas museum would not receive taxpayer subsidies to cover a portion of its operations, senior mayoral adviser David Spielfogel said.

The task force's theory is that the museum, which would house artwork and more than 500,000 pieces of movie memorabilia, would draw conventioneers on foot while also transforming asphalt into a new lakefront park, according to the task force's 56-page report.

"The recommendation is very thoughtful and a fitting site for the type of museum and educational partner the city of Chicago is looking for, and it would complete our Museum Campus, which is world-class and brings people from all over the world," Emanuel said.

The site is about 15 acres. A museum the size of the Field Museum would take up about 5 acres, leaving 10 acres for new parkland, Spielfogel said.

The parking lots, known as the south surface lot and the Waldron parking garage, which are home to thousands of tailgaters during Bears' home games, would be moved underground at Lucas' expense, Spielfogel said.

The garage and lot combined have about 3,000 spaces, and both the Bears and McCormick Place have multidecade contracts on the use of those spaces, according to task force co-chairman Kurt Summers Jr. He predicted that after negotiations finished, the parking plan would result in an equal or greater number of spots for Bears fans, though they would be underground.

Whether tailgating would be permitted in the vicinity of a family-friendly museum has not been addressed. Grills and open fire pits already are prohibited in the stadium's north garage.

"You can kiss tailgating at Soldier Field as we know it goodbye if this deal gets done," said Rob Radulski, of Algonquin, who attends tailgates in those lots. "Where would thousands of people go? There are plenty of locations south of McCormick Place down the lakefront to build on. Why not expand economically there?"

The Bears were not told in advance of the task force's recommendation, and the team issued an upbeat, though noncommittal, statement Tuesday.

"We learned of the task force's recommendation this morning and have not had an opportunity to review the report," the Bears said. "Mayor Emanuel called us to stress his commitment to working together to create a win-win situation for everyone."

Another unknown is whether Chicago will win the museum at all. Lucas launched his career and spent most of his life in the San Francisco region. That city's mayor, Ed Lee, has given his staff until the end of May to come up with its own proposed site or list of sites.

A site in San Francisco that Lucas is considering is controlled by the board of a national park known as the Presidio. Earlier this year that park's board rejected Lucas' preferred bayside location near Crissy Field, which offered jaw-dropping views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Instead the board offered an alternative spot that the museum viewed as less desirable.

That rebuff opened up the door for Chicago, where Lucas lives part time with his wife, Mellody Hobson, president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments. The task force was directed by Lucas to return to him with something "iconic."

The task force looked at 57 sites. It eliminated far-flung places, such as the historic Pullman neighborhood, because they are difficult to access. It crossed out others, such as Harpo Studios in the West Loop and "the space above Union Station," because they either weren't big enough or didn't offer a backdrop for "an iconic structure."

The task force also tossed out existing structures, such as Navy Pier and the old Main Post Office, because Lucas made it clear he wants a free-standing building of his own, which will house one of the world's greatest collections of Norman Rockwell illustrations, among other artwork.

Finally, the task force eliminated a list of seemingly viable sites, such as the old Michael Reese Hospital site, or building over Metra tracks in the vein of a Millennium Park, because Emanuel had requested a site "that did not require taxpayer expense to prepare."

The field was then narrowed to five finalists: the parking lots, Washington Park, Jackson Park, Northerly Island and "Grant Park-South End," bordered by Michigan Avenue to the west and Roosevelt Road to the south.