SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — With fast-track votes, Illinois lawmakers pushed through legislation Thursday to ensure that Chicago can use public park land as a potential site for President Barack Obama's presidential library, while also paving the way for Star Wars creator George Lucas' proposed museum on the city's lakefront.
Advocates for the city's public parks responded by accusing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the lawmakers of using the city's widely supported bid for the Obama library to blunt opposition to the more controversial Lucas museum. They previously had sued to stop the Lucas facility, which they claim would be illegal if built as proposed, on filled-in shoreline that is now public.
"It is deeply troubling that our mayor and state public officials are trying to use the Obama Library as a shield to sneak the Lucas Museum on to Lake Michigan," Friends of the Parks, a 40-year-old nonprofit that advocates for the preservation of public land, said in a written statement.
Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff who has actively promoted both museums, commended lawmakers for approving the bill, saying in a statement that it showed they agree with the city's position "that a presidential library and other museums enhance park land for the benefit of the public."
The Obamas are expected to choose in the next few weeks between two sites in Chicago, one in Hawaii and one in New York to locate the president's library. A bid by the University of Chicago, where Obama taught law, is seen as the clear front-runner. But park advocates protested the proposed use of public land for the project, threatening to sue, and the city only recently moved to acquire access to the property if the Obamas choose the site.
A spokeswoman for The Barack Obama Foundation said the new legislation was a "welcome development. The foundation supports any and all steps that City and the State of Illinois take to strengthen proposed sites for a future presidential center in Chicago."
The proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is where the filmmaker wants to enshrine his collection of art and movie memorabilia. The California native chose Chicago after negotiations over a waterfront site fell through with San Francisco, and it is now proposed for land that is currently a lakefront parking lot near Soldier Field, home of the NFL's Chicago Bears.
Friends of the Parks sued Chicago's Park District in November, calling the would-be museum an "assault on the shores of Lake Michigan." The suit argued that the city has no authority to hand over the land because it is still technically a state protected waterway, and a federal judge dismissed an attempt by the city to have the lawsuit thrown out.
The project also became an issue in Emanuel's recent re-election campaign, when his opponent, Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, questioned the decision to bring it to the city, calling it "a monument to Darth Vader."
Kate LeFurgy, a spokeswoman for the Lucas museum, declined to comment in response to the legislation or the advocates' criticism. Emanuel's office also declined to address the criticism.
The new legislation, first introduced Wednesday evening, was passed in one day in both the Democratic-controlled Illinois House and Senate by votes of 94-16 and 39-13. It now goes to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, whose spokesman declined to say whether he would sign or veto it.
Sponsors said the bill would send a clear message to the Obama foundation that it should site the library in Chicago, by eliminating any questions over the city's authority to go ahead with plans for both museum projects.
The bill would clarify state law to expressly allow Chicago to construct museums on park land or "formerly submerged lands." It would specifically allow the construction of "presidential libraries" on public park land as long as the public can access the grounds "in a manner consistent with its access to other public parks."
Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan said ensuring that the Obama library was located in Illinois was a priority, while noting it also "would assist with the development" of the Lucas museum.
Though the legislation was predominantly supported by her caucus, Democratic state Rep. Ann Williams of Chicago voted against it after expressing concern that the legislation would open up the coveted lakefront property to more development down the road. "The lakefront is truly Chicago's front yard, with open green space for all to enjoy," she said.
Meanwhile, one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Ron Sandack, suggested that the bill was moving so quickly that members were being forced to act "without even knowing what we're voting for."
In its statement, the Friends of the Parks said the new bill will not settle the legal issues involving the two sites.
"It is a complete blank check to abdicate the legal duty of protecting the lake for the people of this State for generations to come," it said.