Park wars: The force is with public trust in Chicago lakefront fight

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By Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson.

Gary Wilson.

David bucks the odds and slays Goliath.

It’s a familiar story but one that rarely seems to happen these days.

But it happened in Chicago when the tiny not for profit Friends of the Parks took on movie mogul George Lucas (Star Wars), Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago’s connected elites.

And won.

Here’s the deal.

Lucas wanted to document his work and legacy in the form of a museum and plunk it down on a prime spot on Chicago’s lakefront. Emanuel, seeing an opportunity to poach a pop-culture icon from California, signs on and becomes the project’s chief cheerleader and facilitator.

chicagoview USE THIS ONEAnd it gets better, or worse depending on your perspective.

Lucas is married to Mellody Hobson, a high-profile Chicago financial management executive who moves in well-connected circles.

The table is set for this project to happen.

Who doesn’t like Star Wars? And the mayor wants it. When a Chicago mayor wants something to happen, it does. Because Lucas’ wife is a prominent Chicagoan the local angle is sealed.

In June of 2014 Lucas selected Chicago and it was a done deal.

The Chicago clout steamroller was revving its engines.

But the deal wasn’t quite done.

Not so fast, says Friends of the Parks, the not for profit group that sees the lakefront and Chicago’s parks as “public places for people and play.”

Chicago’s lakefront belongs to the people and was not intended to be the domain of private entrepreneurs, no matter how popular they may be.

The group doesn’t oppose the project. It would be pleased to see it elsewhere in Chicago, just not on the lakefront which was designed to be “ a commons to remain forever open, free and clear.”

Nope, it has to be on that prime lakefront real estate, Lucas said.

Out of options, Friends of the Parks sued in late 2014 in federal court to stop the project. They cited as the basis of their suit the Public Trust doctrine which says public spaces, like Chicago’s lakefront, are to be held in trust for the public – not private enterprise – by the state.

Chicago was having none of it and quickly asked the court to dismiss the suit.

And that’s where the story was supposed to end: Park advocates fight the good fight, but the judge dismisses the suit and Lucas get his lakefront museum.

Lucas’ legacy will be emblazoned on Chicago’s lakefront and Mayor Emanuel chalks up a win for his own legacy.

Goliath wins.

But this suit was filed in a federal court where judges are less-likely to be influenced by local clout.

The judge ruled in May 2015 that the suit could proceed, indicating that the case had merit and there was a legal basis for the suit.

Chicago’s power establishment swung into action.

The Parks group was excoriated as being a rogue organization and was even called an “elitist gang” by a prominent priest who favored the project.

For a year the mayor, Lucas and Friends of the Parks jockeyed back and forth on how the project may proceed. But no deal.

Lucas was done.

Chicago faced a protracted legal battle to be able to place the museum on public property. The indicators were that it could lose.

In June Lucas pulled the museum project from Chicago. He’ll try to rekindle it in California, where it should have been in the first place. Movie mogul, Star Wars, Hollywood. You get it.

There are lessons to be learned from the Lucas, Chicago and Friends of the Parks tiff.

Thought to be an arcane legal precedent by some, the Public Trust principle still has merit and relevance. It’s not a panacea and if the Parks’ group’s suit had continued to a decision, they could have lost. But one judge in a federal court recognized it as a viable legal tool of the people.

You can fight city hall or the entrenched power structure in your locale. But you need the courage of your convictions. Chicago environmental groups have a reputation for treading lightly around the city’s notoriously powerful mayors. The theory is that it’s better to keep your disagreement beneath the radar and effect change from the inside than to be frozen out of the discussion.

Had Friends of the Parks taken that approach, Lucas, Emanuel and Chicago’s elite would be taking a victory lap and a movie mogul’s pet project would be under construction on land that is held in trust for the people.

This small victory for the Public Trust principle won’t end the fights between public and private interests.

And it doesn’t mean that David will consistently beat Goliath; he won’t. But it does demonstrate the good that can come:

  • When we take a smart stand on principle.
  • When we’ve got the guts to challenge wealthy and politically-connected elites.
  • When we’re not willing to compromise at every turn.
  • When we value what’s right over what’s politically convenient.

Those can be inconvenient principles to stand on.

But protecting the environment should be about more than what’s convenient.

2 thoughts on “Park wars: The force is with public trust in Chicago lakefront fight

  1. The original “David” was Alexander Stuart Bradley, a Chicago attorney (and incidentally the father-in-law of Thorstein Veblen). The original “Goliath” was the I.C.R.R.
    See University of Chicago Law Review
    Summer 2000,
    *799 THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN PUBLIC TRUST DOCTRINE: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED
    IN ILLINOIS CENTRAL

    Joseph D. Kearney & Thomas W. Merrill [FNd1]

    [FN 19] A.S. Bradley, Report of the Present Status of the Claims of the Illinois Central Railroad to the Lake Front, and Submerged Lands Adjoining, under the “Lake Front Steal” of 1869 4 (Illinois Anti-Monopoly League 1881) (stating of the Lake Front Act’s provenance, “the usual methods of monopolies, bribery, intimidation, log-rolling and obstruction of all public business until their job was accomplished, were resorted to”).

    [FN431]. A political pamphlet circulated in 1881 stated that the suit was filed after Thomas Hoyne, the chair of the Farwell Hall rally, “having exhausted every other means of prevention and redress of this gigantic villainy, as a last resort, applied to the United States Government.” Bradley, Report of the Present Status of the Claims of the Illinois Central Railroad to the Lake Front at 5 (cited in note 19).”

    Bradley’s ill health prevented him from appearing as counsel for plaintiffs in the leading case, still cited as in Audubon Society vs. Los Angeles. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

  2. Thanks to Friends of the Parks for their courageous battle against the powerful and rich. Glad to see that the Public Trust Doctrine is alive and well!!

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