A federal judge today declined to halt a battle over plans to build “Star Wars” creator George Lucas’ museum along Chicago’s lakefront.
In a brief hearing at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, U.S. District John W. Darrah denied the city’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a nonprofit preservation group challenging the proposed site of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.
Friends of the Parks contends the city is violating its duty to hold property in trust for the public by leasing a protected waterway — the site was part of Lake Michigan until it was filled in during the 1920s — to a private party.
The city counters the 99-year lease it offered Lucas will benefit the public by allowing him to replace a parking lot with a public museum, an observation deck and nearly five acres of new park land.
Darrah scheduled a status hearing for Feb. 17 to discuss discovery in the case.
Darrah chose the date after an attorney for the city, Brian D. Sieve of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, said “it is urgent” that the case move swiftly.
The city also was represented at the hearing by William Macy Aguiar of the corporation counsel’s office.
Joseph P. Roddy of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella P.C. represented the Chicago Park District.
Thomas H. Geoghegan of Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan appeared for Friends of the Park and the two individual plaintiffs in the suit.
“We’re pleased the case is going forward,” Geoghegan said following the hearing.
He said Friends of the Park is not opposed to the museum — just to the proposed site.
“They can get rid of the parking lot without putting up a huge new building,” he said.
Executive Director Juanita Irizarry of Friends of the Parks also said she was “thrilled” that Darrah declined to dismiss the suit.
The judge’s decision marks the second time he has concluded Friends of the Parks and the individual plaintiffs have raised arguments that deserve to be heard in court, Irizarry said.
Later, in a written statement, she praised retail magnate Aaron Montgomery Ward for making protection of the lakefront “his labor of love” a century ago.
“Regardless of the Lucas Museum outcome, we will honor this legacy and continue to push back against development along Chicago’s lakefront,” she wrote, “so that many more generations to come will know this jewel that, unfortunately, so many take for granted.”
In 2014, Lucas selected Chicago over San Francisco as the location of his proposed museum.
The 17-acre site chosen for the museum is south of Soldier Field and north of the McCormick Place Lakeside Center. A parking lot currently occupies that space.
Later that year, Friends of the Park and the individual plaintiffs — Sylvia Mann and John Buenz — filed their suit seeking to block the museum’s construction on the lakefront property.
The Illinois General Assembly last year amended the Park District Aquarium and Museum Act to allow municipalities to give the go-ahead for private parties — under certain circumstances — to build museums and aquariums on public land.
The park district then entered into a 99-year lease allowing Lucas to build his museum on the lakeside. Lucas paid $10 for his interest in the site. The lease may be renewed for two more 99-year terms.
Lucas later scaled back the size of the planned museum and expanded the amount of open space that would surround the building.
Last year, Darrah declined to throw out three of the four counts in the original suit and gave the plaintiffs permission to replead the fourth count. The plaintiffs later filed an amended suit.
Shortly after the hearing today, Darrah issued a written opinion explaining his decision to deny the motion to dismiss.
Darrah did not rule on the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims, but concluded they could continue to pursue those claims.
Those claims include the contention that the city denied the plaintiffs due process by entering into the lease without the specific approval of the General Assembly.
Each taxpayer in Illinois, Darrah wrote, citing Paepcke v. Public Building Commission of Chicago, 263 N.E.2d 11 (Ill. 1970), “has a fractional beneficial interest in the property that the state of Illinois hold in trust for them, so as to create a protectable property interest.”
Darrah also declined to throw out the plaintiffs’ claim that the amendment to the museum law enacted by the General Assembly wasn’t sufficient to transfer control of land held in public trust to a private entity.
The General Assembly “cannot delegate its general legislative power to determine what the law shall be,” Darrah wrote, quoting Hill v. Relyea, 216 N.E.2d 795 (Ill. 1966).
And he cleared the way for the plaintiffs to move forward with their claim that the city violated the public trust.
“Plaintiffs have sufficiently pled that the proposed museum is not for the benefit of the public but will impair public interest in the land and benefit the LMNA [Lucas Museum of Narrative Art] and promote private and/or commercial interests,” Darrah wrote.
The case is Friends of the Parks, et al. v. Chicago Park District, et al., No. 14 C 9096.