For the nearly two centuries since the founding of Chicago, the invaluable shore fronting Lake Michigan has achieved remarkable heights (despite its modest elevation, not 600 feet above sea level). The lakefront creates vast, open vistas for Chicagoans and their guests. It welcomes space-seekers to its playfulness and its serenity. It buffers one of North America's greatest cityscapes from one of North America's greatest inland seas.
Yet even real estate this accomplished and seductive has nonnegotiable limits: Chicago's lakefront never has been able to accommodate even a smattering of the grand visions that politicians, philanthropists, civic groups and others of great influence propose. Most of these ideas have appeal; many have been generous.
The only reason Chicago can extend its habitual debate about each new plan to add another big building to this priceless public land: Because generations of Chicagoans have defeated most of those attempts. Yet, paradoxically, the very protections that keep much of the lakefront unoccupied leave it vulnerable to, yes, each new plan to add another big building to such priceless public land.
Repeatedly saying no to lakefront proposals is hard. Many want to leave their perpetual marks on land so precious, so prominent, that it cannot be bought. Not even by the wealthiest Chicagoans — some of whom, in bold or subtle ways, have tried.
The latest proposal, for a visual arts museum built by "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, would be a wonderful addition to Chicago. Superb potential sites abound, many in neighborhoods eager to welcome new development, new civic attention and new tourism.
We thank Mr. Lucas for considering Chicago, where his spouse lives, as a finalist for his museum. We trust he appreciates that this city is equipped to meet such a big institution's infrastructure, human talent and other substantial needs.
But Chicago shouldn't donate more of its remaining downtown lakefront for a private museum ... on public turf. Chicago should be seeking more ways to further open its lakefront vistas — not offering to give away the use of this land in dollar-a-year deals that run for many decades.
We sensed last week, in meeting with proponents of the plan, that while it's obvious this museum belongs somewhere else in Chicago, offering Lucas anything less than this prime lakefront land will push him to accept a rival offer from his native San Francisco.
Two takeaways from that meeting:
• The proponents contend that this proposal wouldn't flout Chicago's Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which is designed to preserve and enhance the lakeshore parks. But they simply can't square this project with a key tenet of that ordinance: There shall be no new private development permitted east of Lake Shore Drive. This would be a privately built development that would enjoy a long-term guarantee of a home on public land east of Lake Shore Drive. (We acknowledge the significant role the Tribune played in building McCormick Place, which predated the Lakefront Protection Ordinance.)
• Proponents also scorn what's currently on the site as unattractive parking space. We agree. That's reason to eventually relocate the parking and convert the whole expanse to park land. Plopping a museum there, even if new green space would be created around it, would compound the bad decisions of other projects that buried so much lakefront in concrete.
Similarly, we look forward to the day when the bonds on the Soldier Field seating bowl are paid off and it can be demolished, restoring a monument to America's war dead and giving professional football a bigger multiuse stadium — off the lake — that's able to host Super Bowls and Final Fours.
Nothing here is intended to question the theme of the proposed museum, its appeal to visitors or its contribution to Chicago.
This would be Lucas' museum, holding Lucas' collection, built with Lucas' money. Forbes ranks Lucas, 70, as the world's 294th-richest person, with a net worth of $5 billion.
But the protection of Chicago's lakefront truly is nonnegotiable:
Imagine the precedent that today's or tomorrow's developers easily would cite if Chicago extends a long-term lease of its downtown lakefront to a private interest. That is, if Chicago grants this project on this land, lakefront protections that have evolved (and tightened) would collapse under the weight of philanthropists' dreams.
By what legal or other means could Chicagoans block some proposal that strikes the fancy of a mayor and the aldermen: A lakefront museum of American culinary arts (food, from farm fields to fine restaurants). A lakefront museum of American music (featuring but not limited to the blues). A lakefront museum of American sports and recreation (from pro sports to softball and much more).
We do hope Mr. Lucas builds his museum in Chicago. But preserving what remains of our open lakefront for future centuries is a priority bigger than the dreams of one generation, one City Hall administration, one man.