Enter the dark side…
It was only in March that Preservation Chicago named iconic convention venue McCormick Place Lakeside Center — aka McCormick Place East — as one of the city’s eight most endangered buildings. Little did the citizens watchdog group know.
As most locals have heard, Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) has since proposed taking a wrecking ball to the 45-year-old landmark — arguably “one of Chicago’s great mid-century modern buildings” — and locating the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art on its lakeside site in an effort to keep developer and aging movie mogul George Lucas from shopping the project to still another city. Meantime, to cover his bases, Emanuel requested a federal appellate court to assume jurisdiction over and dismiss a lawsuit by nonprofit Friends of The Parks (FOTP) concerning the project’s original site. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, a former federal prosecutor and expert in appellate law termed the petition as “extraordinary.” A preliminary ruling is expected this week.
The revised site plan involving McCormick Place also is a long shot. It too was denounced by FOTP, a thorn in the side of the proposed $300-million project since planners first eyed a downtown site along Lake Michigan, east of Lake Shore Drive and south of Soldier Field. FOTP sued, claiming the idea violated a 100-year-old legal doctrine entrusting the State of Illinois with “all formerly submerged lake bed land.”
Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge John Darrah ruled that he would allow the suit to proceed, a decision that itself could place the project in limbo for years. Despite its denouncement of the McCormick site, FOTP is adopting a wait-and-see stance before deciding to wage a legal battle on a second front. However, the group deemed any lakeside site as “unacceptable”. Lucas, for his part, is now evaluating other cities for the museum, which previously had also failed to win enough friends in San Francisco.
FOTP “has proven itself to be no friend of Chicago,” said Mellody Hobson, Lucas’s wife and native Chicagoan, said publicly last week. “We are now seriously pursuing locations outside Chicago.”
Clearly, Emanuel sees little value in McCormick Place East and, to be fair, neither did his predecessor, Mayor Richard M. Daley, who characterized the structure as a “Berlin Wall” that destroyed Chicago’s lakefront. (Memo to RMD: The 583,000-sq-ft facility is big, but not THAT big.)
For its part, McCormick Place East actually has an award-winning pedigree. Its Modernist, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-inspired design was created in 1967 by C. F. Murphy Associates. There, a 27-year-old, up-and-coming architect named Helmut Jahn contributed mightily. But the intervening decades have since seen many epitaphs hurled at the convention center.
Not that criticism hasn’t also found a ready target at the proposed Lucas Museum, as designed by Ma Yansong, founder of Beijing-based MAD Architects. It has earned unflattering comparisons to Jabba the Hut, the giant, slug-like villain created by Lucas for his popular Star Wars franchise.
But at the end of the day, this isn’t about beauty contests.
Rather, it’s about money, timing, and the general state of affairs in Chicago and Illinois. Should Emanuel have his way, plans call for rebuilding the convention center west of Lake Shore Drive, near three additional McCormick Place structures further inland from the lake. The tab for convention center tear down, museum construction, upgraded pedestrian bridge and greenery: $665 million. An additional $500 million would be required to construct a “bridge building” spanning Martin Luther King Drive to link two McCormick Place buildings, upgrade existing facilities and add parking. To proceed, Emanuel must persuade IL Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) and state lawmakers to not only loan $1.2 billion to McCormick Place operator Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, but approve future tax hikes.
The timing couldn’t be worse, given that Rauner and lawmakers have been locked in a bitter statewide budget battle that has waylaid several public programs for nearly a year. Among unresolved issues are a Chicago Public School bailout and the disposition of several major infrastructure programs. “In the midst of a state budget crisis that has prevented the legislature from some of the most basic requests from the city of Chicago and cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools, it is difficult to see how this enormous request for state resources fits into priorities of the city and the state of Illinois’ financial crisis,” Laurence Msall, president of non-partisan Civic Federation budget watchdog group, told the Chicago Tribune.
Emanuel, however, maintains the city will benefit from a new cultural facility and spruced up convention center space. True, cultural and recreational facilities draw tourists who spend money, but Chicago boasts countless such attractions. Further, tourists come and go, but a growing number of Chicago residents simply are going — for good.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Chicago lost more residents in 2015 than any city in the nation. Defectors say they have wearied of high taxes, soaring rents, poor schools, gun violence, city finances, traffic congestion, crumbling infrastructure, and a host of other urban ills.
So, as long as Emanuel is heading to the state capital in Springfield IL with hat in hand, why not add funding for those issues to his wish list?
Thriving, growing, safe and affordable cities attract residents and are conducive to all types of development — unsightly museums included. It’s a win-win for residents and construction industry members alike.
Now isn’t the time for a city confronting countless challenges and epic fiscal woes — including the prospect junk bond status! — to dig itself in deeper by borrowing billions to pave the way for a new museum and spiffed-up convention center.
In addition, some of us actually happen to like McCormick Place East.