Artist's rendering of George Lucas' proposed art museum in San Francisco's Presidio. (Lucas Cultural Arts Museum presentation, January 2014)
Artist’s rendering of George Lucas’ proposed art museum in San Francisco’s Presidio. (Lucas Cultural Arts Museum presentation, January 2014)

San Francisco has lost to Chicago in the high-profile contest to host filmmaker George Lucas’ museum of popular and cinematic art. Lucas announced today that the new facility will be built on a 17-acre parcel on Chicago’s Lake Michigan waterfront. The site of the newly rechristened Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is close to a cluster of established museums, including the Field Museum of Natural History, Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium.

In a statement, Lucas said:

“We are honored to be partnering with the city of Chicago and the many cultural, educational and community groups that have come forward with ideas about how the LMNA will add to their vibrant work. I am humbled to be joining such an extraordinary museum community and to be creating the museum in a city that has a long tradition of embracing the arts.”

Lucas originally proposed building the museum on a site adjacent to Crissy Field in the Presidio. When he presented the plan in March 2013, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Lucas planned to spend $250 million to $300 million to build the museum and grant the institution $800 million in endowments. The filmmaker’s vision for the San Francisco museum was a grand one, the Chronicle said:

Lucas is confident that his proposal, three years in the making, would fulfill those goals at no cost to the Presidio Trust. He will pay for everything. The museum would be a gathering place for families, he said, and showcase 150 years of populist art, including the illustrations of Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish, comics, children’s books, fashion, cinema and digital technology. There would be permanent and rotating exhibitions, and programs that would be an extension of Edutopia, the educational foundation he started in 1991 to improve K-12 learning.

But that plan collapsed last February when the group that controls development at the historic former Army base, the Presidio Trust, rejected a scaled-down Lucas museum plan and two other proposals for the site. The trust said none of the plans was appropriate for what is considered a marquee property.

Lucas’ representatives immediately declared that the museum would consider sites in other cities, and Chicago quickly emerged as the leading contender. Lucas’s wife, investment banker Mellody Hobson, is a Chicago native and reportedly lobbied fiercely for the Lake Michigan waterfront site. Los Angeles also began courting the filmmaker this month.

The Presidio Trust and San Francisco city officials offered alternatives to the Crissy Field property — one near the Presidio’s Letterman Digital Arts Center, which Lucas helped create, and one on the Embarcadero across the street from Piers 30-32. But Lucas opted for Chicago’s offer of a $1-a-year lease for the lakefront real estate. The property, just south of Soldier Field and a mile and a half or so from the center of downtown, is currently occupied by two city-owned parking lots.

When Lucas and company announced their decision Tuesday, the Chronicle’s Phil Matier and Andy Ross were ready with a piece saying that the outcome came as little surprise to San Francisco city officials:

Team Lucas never seemed to think much of the [alternative] Presidio site — a spokesman all but dismissed it as a “Hail Mary” play after the trust came up with it. But they showed more interest in the city’s spot along the Embarcadero — although, unlike in Chicago, Lucas would have had to pay $30 million or more to buy the port property.

Lee and Company cranked up the PR campaign to try to win Lucas over, including taking out a full-page Chronicle ad signed by every living former San Francisco mayor and hundreds of community leaders.

Sources tell us that Lee had been preparing to sweeten the pot by pledging to help turn Piers 30-32 into a gateway park — possibly with an amphitheater or other public amenities — that would have protected the views of whatever museum Lucas built across the way. …

… But there were plenty of unresolved issues. For openers, it would probably cost more than $100 million to transform Piers 30-32 into a park — so even if the city put up the $30 million-plus from the land sale to Lucas, it would still have been tens of millions of dollars short.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Lucas museum will face development challenges in the Windy City, too:

… The museum is expected to draw opposition from open space advocates. Friends of the Parks has opposed the Soldier Field site because it would violate one of the 14 basic policies of the Lakefront Plan of Chicago, which prohibits further private development east of Lake Shore Drive.

Under Emanuel’s plan, … two Chicago Park District-owned parking lots would be leased to the museum for $1, which is similar to arrangements other large cultural institutions have with the Park District. However, unlike other museums, the Lucas museum would not receive taxpayer subsidies to cover a portion of its operations, mayoral aides have said.

The theory is that the museum will draw conventioneers from neighboring McCormick Place and that the 17-acre plot of land being offered is large enough to both house the museum while leaving about 12 acres for additional green space.

The parking lots would be moved underground at Lucas’ expense, the city has said. In addition to paying construction costs, Lucas has said the museum would receive a $400 million endowment over time.

  • Zazie

    Congratulations Presidio Trust.

  • scola251

    I’m a current SF resident and a Chicago native. On the one hand I’m glad it’s not happening here but I’m also sad it is happening in Chicago. Putting this schlock at Chrissy Field would have been awful.

    However, Chicago also has a law limiting development on the lakefront dating back for generations. Friends of the Parks, a local Chicago group, will likely sue to stop this. They should. This garbage doesn’t belong on Chicago’s glorious lakefront any more than it belongs on SF’s waterfront.

    Put it in LA. It’s already ruined.

    • Root_Admin1

      As a Los Angeles native, I resent that remark. You’re not even a SF or CA native even. You don’t think SF gentrification and culture of entitlement hasn’t ruined SF already!? Please.

      • scola251

        I don’t think SF is ruined, no.

        You can resent the remark, but ask yourself this: In San Francisco the Presidio Trust said “no.”

        In Chicago Friends of the Parks is screaming “no” as loud as they can, although the politicians will probably find a way to dismiss them entirely.

        Who in LA would scream “no” in the face of a movie director who wanted to take the public’s land and use it for his movie memorabilia collection? Don’t take it personally–the same is true for most of America which is why so much of this country is so hideously disfigured. LA is not unique in that way. It just happened to be the other site considered.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

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