A Tale of Two Vanity Projects

One woman stands between Rahm Emanuel and the Obama Presidential Library (Updated)

• January 23, 2015 2:15 pm


Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s ability to bring major construction projects to Chicago has won over private sector unions and the business community even as he hemorrhages support from government unions disappointed with his budget reforms. No projects could prove more important to his reelection than the Obama Presidential Library and George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. These vanity projects from two beloved celebrities promise to deliver billions in growth, millions in tax revenue, and thousands of jobs.

Thanks to Cassandra Francis, Emanuel may lose both of them.

Francis sits in her office overlooking Millennium Park. A former Olympic-level rower with degrees in architecture and urban planning from the University of Chicago and University of Illinois at Chicago, she helped build dozens of projects as a real estate developer. She is now president and CEO of Friends of the Parks (FOTP), a group dedicated to preserving Chicago’s 30-mile public shoreline and 8,100 acres of parkland.

That mission brings her into conflict with Emanuel’s plans to build the library on historic parks and the museum on the waterfront. She’s invoking decades-old conservation laws to prevent Emanuel from transferring the public parkland, which is controlled by the independent Chicago Park District, into the hands of these private actors.

"Of course we want the Obama Library and Lucas Museum in Chicago, but we need to slow all of this down. We shouldn’t act on an election timeframe or a legacy timeframe. We’re obligated to hold the land for future generations, so we owe careful thought to planning," she says.

The mayor, she insists, forced her hand by pushing rushed plans that infringe on park space. Lucas made clear his intentions to construct his museum years ago. Obama has been in office since 2009. Universities across Texas began drafting plans for the George W. Bush Presidential Library before all the votes in Florida were tallied. What has the city been doing all this time? Mayor Emanuel, who did not respond to requests for comment, chose to apply his "never let a crisis go to waste" mantra to development, according to Francis.

"He’s saying ‘this project has to go here or they’ll leave Chicago.’ That’s not a fair question," she says. "We’re jumping after every shiny object that comes to Chicago and as a city we need to be discriminating … to make sure these are positive for the legacy of our city."

These shiny objects attract big money and bigger influence, and few projects in modern history could rival the Lucas Museum or the Obama library in either respect. Nearly every player in the efforts to bring the museums to the city can be found on Chicago Magazine’s annual 100 Most Powerful People in Chicago list, starting with Rahm Emanuel (#1 on the list). Those interests have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal, while FOTP raised $750,000 in 2013—with much of that money committed to park clean ups.

Spokesmen for both projects declined interview requests.

The Barack Obama Foundation, a non-profit group that operates independently of the president, is leading the search for the future location of the library. Obama’s best friend and 2008 campaign treasurer Marty Nesbitt (#56 on the list), who previously served on Rahm’s Midway Airport Committee, serves as chairman. The foundation has between $3 and $6.2 million at its disposal thanks to the generosity of liberal superdonor Fred Eychaner (#32) and Democracy Alliance founder Tim Gill, according to foundation disclosures. Grosvenor Capital CEO and Emanuel confidante Michael Sacks (#5) is the library’s top donor, contributing between $500,001 and $1 million. The state legislature flirted with the idea of spending $100 million to land the library.

Emanuel endorsed the University of Chicago bid and is now asking the city council to cede about 20 acres of land in either historic Washington or Jackson Park to build the library for UC President Robert J. Zimmer (#57).

As for the Museum of Narrative Art, George Lucas committed to spend between $700 million and $1 billion on the project, while interests tied to it have given Emanuel $50,000. Lucas ostensibly entertained the Chicago site because his wife, Ariel Investments president and Dreamworks Chairwoman Mellody Hobson (#29), is from the city.

The Star Wars filmmaker surrounded himself with influential residents during the site selection process. He tapped local architect Jeanne Gang (#20) to help with the designs. He found a key ally in Chicago’s fastest-rising political star, Kurt Summers. Summers served as chief of staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle (#4) and was a top executive at Sacks’ Grosvenor Capital. Emanuel named him to the Lucas Museum taskforce along with Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez (#74) in April. Summers became the public face of Friends of the Lucas Museum, a "grassroots" group that sprouted up to repel Friends of the Parks. Emanuel named him city treasurer in October.

Francis compensates for her lack of political support with laws the city’s Democratic machine passed ages ago. The guiding principles of city’s 1972 Lakefront Protection says "in no instance will further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive," which happens to be exactly where Lucas wants his 17-acre museum. The Supreme Court’s 19th Century Public Trust Doctrine, a precedent established to bar Illinois lawmakers from ceding public land to a private company, also needs be taken into account when Emanuel gives parkland to the foundation for the library, according to Francis.

"I think the current administration has misled people and the Obama Foundation into believing that a transfer of land was going to be a done deal … It’s not even clear that it’s legal and it’s certainly unprecedented to have protected open public space transferred like this," she says.

Emanuel could have used these projects to convince the City Council to reform the Chicago Park District, an independent agency run by a political appointee, or to rewrite the Lakefront Ordinance. Instead he chose to push through the deals and hope for the best. This strategy backfired when a federal judge forbade museum development until the court reviewed an FOTP lawsuit.

Francis’ effectiveness appears to have spooked both projects.

Obama’s most trusted confidante, Valerie Jarrett, is allegedly pushing for a New York City location because it would be "more fun" for her and the Obamas to live there than in Chicago. The offer has fewer political headaches since Columbia University isn’t asking Mayor de Blasio to hand over acreage from the city’s parks. That could prove attractive to a president more interested in discussing art and philosophy with interesting Italians than dealing with petty politics.

A library foundation source hinted that Emanuel needs to get more involved. "There are major concerns with the three potential sites in the University of Chicago proposal given the fact that neither the school nor the City of Chicago control the sites," a foundation source told the Chicago Sun-Times in December. "The point is the city needs to solve the problem as much as the University of Chicago."

Lucas told reporters at a Jan. 16 teleconference that he may put his museum in Los Angeles. This is a threat that Emanuel should take seriously: The filmmaker only moved the project to Chicago after his native San Francisco refused to hand him landmark property.

"The advantage Los Angeles has is that it's on the USC campus and I don't have to go through all the rigmarole of years and years of trying to get past everything … That's an advantage because I do want to get it done in my lifetime," he said. "I have faith in Chicago and Rahm, who is dedicated to making it happen … But he's also coming up for election next month."

His main opponent, progressive Alderman Bob Fioretti, says that the city is in danger of losing both projects because Emanuel took shortcuts in planning. Emanuel offered to lease valuable parkland to the museum and the foundation for $1 a piece, which Fioretti sees as a way to get around the controversy behind both projects.

"$1 for prime lakefront property is unacceptable on all levels. We don’t build there period, but here comes Rahm’s big donors, the Hollywood guys tied to his brother and now we’re stuck with this white elephant," he says. "The mayor has tied what happens in Chicago to these big projects when he forgot about the neighborhoods."

Francis says that the mayor’s tactics will set a precedent that encourages developers to "think of parks as available land … because there’s always going to be someone willing to take the easy way out and disregard our principles."

"It’s a slippery slope … if we don’t protest building on this site we’re creating conditions to fight this battle on the waterfront constantly," she says.

Without a fixed location, Lucas has settled on registering the museum’s base of operations at the JW Marriot located at 208 South LaSalle Street. The building holds a special place in the hearts of architecture enthusiasts.

"The building is noteworthy as one of the last two buildings upon which famed Chicago architect D. H. Burnham personally supervised the design," the city’s Landmarks Commission said in a 2007 report.

Burnham is the Godfather of Chicago architecture, and once found himself in a battle over the use of Chicago’s parks that has echoes in present-day controversies. After putting the city on the map by overseeing the construction of the neo-classical White City at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, city elites asked him to "bring order out of the chaos incident to rapid growth."

His 1909 manifesto, the Plan of Chicago, called for the creation of a cultural center in Grant Park, which is located near the proposed sites of the Lucas Museum and Obama library. Burnham wanted to use the space to house two museums and a library.

The plan enjoyed universal adoration from the press, schools, and the city’s leading businessmen and politicians. But one man stood in Burnham’s way. Montgomery Ward, of mail-order catalog fame, waged a singular battle to preserve Grant Park as public land and repelled numerous lakeshore proposals aimed at "transforming the breathing spot for the poor into a showground of the educated rich."

"In 1911 the state Supreme Court decisively confirmed Montgomery Ward’s lonely opinion that the city’s original plans forbade any buildings in Grant Park," the Burnham Plan Centennial said.

When Ward died the Tribune headline said "Death Takes Ward, Lake ‘Watchdog.’" Scare quotes dotted the obituary, especially his "fight to ‘save’ Grant Park. A century later, the newspaper published an op-ed titled "Thank You, Montgomery Ward."

Francis hopes to leave the same legacy even if Emanuel blames her for costing the city the projects.

"If it comes to it and we end up being the scapegoat at least we would have protected a very important, historic cultural landscape that is part of Chicago’s heritage," she says.

Voters will decide Emanuel’s fate on Feb. 24. Two days later, a federal judge will issue a decision in the Lucas Museum lawsuit. No one knows how either is going to pan out.

One thing is certain: Cassandra Francis belongs on the Power 100 list in 2015.

Update, January 26, 11:00 P.M.: This story has been corrected to reflect that Emanuel is proposing to give parkland to the Barack Obama Foundation, not the University of Chicago. The university will host the library, but the foundation will officially own the property during construction.

Published under: Feature, Rahm Emanuel