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Controversial Lucas Museum Plan Commission Hearing: Report

rendering via Lucas Museum website

Curbed contributor Shawn Ursini has covered the details of the plan commission hearing on the Lucas Museum.

Yesterday afternoon, the Chicago Plan Commission held three separate votes to approve the proposed Lucas Museum. The controversial site selection is an empty surface parking lot just south of Soldier Field, stretching from roughly 1801-1931 South Lake Shore Drive and is used only a handful of days throughout the year, primarily by tailgaters during football season. The controversy is primarily derived from the fact that the site is presently located east of Lake Shore Drive, where as according to the Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance and Corresponding Lakefront Plan, no private development may occur.

This waterfront site though is unique, as it is adjacent to other cultural venues which also occupy public lands owned by the Chicago Park District, and when the Lakefront Protection Ordinance was written and approved in the early 1970's, Lake Shore Drive in this location was actually positioned further east and closer to the water of Burnham Harbor. In the 1990's, Lake Shore Drive was realigned, thus creating what we now know as the museum campus. Before then, the drive split into a couplet of two roadways between McCormick Place at 23rd Street (2300 South) and the Field Museum at Roosevelt Road (1200 South). The southbound lanes were located alongside the railroad tracks of the Metra Electric line, while the northbound lanes ran east of Soldier Field and between the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium before rejoining the southbound lanes and running the current alignment through Grant Park. As such, this site has never truly been public green space, but rather a sea of asphalt parking sandwiched between two arterial roadways. The reconstruction of Solider Field a decade ago combined with the realignment of the Lake Shore Drive brought about the greening of Burnham Park's north end that many Chicagoans and visitors now take for granted.

There is still a pending lawsuit in federal court brought forth by Friends of the Parks, whom has opposed the site selection of the museum from day one. Their argument hinges on whether or not this building constitutes a private use in violation of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance, a final decision of which will be made by the court, irrespective of yesterday's votes in the council chambers at city hall or any further subsequent approvals. However, having the project fully entitled by the city would allow for construction to begin as early as spring of 2016 and an opening of the museum in 2019 if the court decides in favor of construction and no other legal delays occur.

The Plan Commission voted unanimously to approve the Lucas Museum on three specific items:

1. A 99 year ground lease from Park District with two options for renewal.
The Park District will maintain ownership of the land and the lease can be terminated early if the Park District deems the museum to not be in compliance with the terms of the lease. The lease will cost the Lucas Museum $10, and while this may seem to be an absurdly low amount of money considering the fiscal constraints of the Park District and city at large; the district factors the value of a nearly half billion dollar investment occurring within the city that will convert over 200,000 square feet (nearly 5 acres) of asphalt parking lots into public green space and the planting of 750 new trees. Additionally, the terms of the lease are similar to those for the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium which are allowed to exist in perpetuity pursuant to agreements made with the Park District in 1915 and 1925. The Park District had authorized the lease on Wednesday and the Lucas Museum will receive no funding from the Museum in the Parks program or any other public subsidy, but must still abide by the standards of offering free admission to school groups as well as the general public on a minimum of 52 days per year.

2. Amendment to Planned Development 778
A current customized zoning stretches over the site from McFetridge Drive on the north near the Field Museum southward to the parking lot on which the museum would be built on. A change to the Planned Development Ordinance pertaining to this specific area is needed to construct the building. Since the location is within the Central Area and the general confines of downtown zoning, the underlying zoning of DX-3 does not have any height limitations or setback requirements which conflict the design as proposed. Because the area within the Planned Development boundary is quite large, the floor area ratio would still be well below maximum currently allowed, which is a 3.0.

3. Lakefront Protection Ordinance Application approval.
The site lies within the Lakefront Protection Public Use Zone and requires extra review as well as an additional vote by The Chicago Plan Commission. This review cross references the museum as planned with 27 different principals which ensure the lakefront's public access is not impeded and that water and shoreline quality is not degraded. The plan as proposed was found to be in compliance due to a number of design features which will increase public green space, allow for free public access within the building and will provide a beneficial enhancement to the local environment along this stretch of lakefront.

[rendering via Lucas Museum website]
What is proposed is an art museum, but one with a different purpose. The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will have a focus on story telling from cave paintings to illustrations and comic art to film and digital works. The building's form and design of the surrounding grounds was inspired by the dune landscapes prevalently found along the shores of Lake Michigan before urbanization occurred. The architect, Ma Yansong of MAD Architects created a structural concept crafted from the digital age, calling it 'architecture as an art, not just an inhabited building'. The concrete and steel structure will have an exterior sheathed with custom made cast stone to create a smooth and nearly seamless exterior flowing across the entire building.

The building sits on a raised plaza located above loading docks and 225 parking spaces at the ground level. The plaza then forms the main entry point for the building while also doubling as an elevated outdoor public space. Inside, the museum is broken up into three areas: cinemas, an educational wing and then the art galleries. The cinema section contains three state of the art theaters showing film, digital art and informational exhibits while the educational wing will have a large library and reading room for research and exploration open to any visitors.

[rendering via Lucas Museum website]
The galleries make up the tallest part of the building and are positioned around a central circular ramp which inclines upward leading to four landings. The landings are then the floor plates holding the art galleries. The ramp then also has midpoint areas serving as spaces for resting and reflection, with windows looking out onto the city. At the uppermost portion of the building is a restaurant serving lunch and dinner as well as a public outdoor observation deck on the rooftop located just below the stainless steel ring which crowns the museum. Admission to the observation deck is free and open to anyone in the park, much like the bridge at the Art Institute extending over Monroe Street. The observation deck will be 136'-6" above the ground, with the building itself topping out at 156'-6" to the top of the ring. Neighboring Soldier Field for reference tops out at about 159 feet. Access to the restaurant area and rooftop observatory will be through dedicated elevators from the plaza level, bypassing the exhibit spaces and the paid entry areas within the museum.

The building as a whole is viewed as a dune set within the transect of a lakefront landscape ranging from a shoreline edge on the east and a woodland on the west positioned along Lake Shore Drive. Dune landscapes traditionally offer a diverse array of ecosystems separated by elevation and amounts of wind exposure and as such, the landscape plan will allow for the planting of over 70 different native species of plants. Within the extensive landscaping, 93 percent of storm water will be directed to the lake and filtered on site. Only 4 percent will be sent into the combined sewer system with the remainder anticipated as onsite retention. The greening of the site is also expected to reduce the urban heat island effect now generated by the large parking lot.

The grounds will be broken up into different areas including:

-dune landscape

-wet eco park, a series of bioswales capturing and filtering storm water runoff within a semi-wet prairie setting.

-dry eco park, an upland prairie setting

-Event prairie, an open expanse of grass surrounded by oak trees. This will serve as an outdoor civic room for special events and tailgating during Bears Games.

-Forested buffer, a dense cluster of new trees between the museum and Lake Shore Drive.

To make way for the museum, Burnham Harbor Drive would be relocated to western edge of the site. The lightly used street will remain as a one-way northbound route linking the McCormick Place East building to 18th Street and the Lake Shore Drive interchange. Traffic counts are in fact so low on a typical day that the Lake Shore Drive interchange traffic signals are not in regular operation most of the time, but rather are set to a flashing red light. The vacation of the street right of way will be between the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Park District while all of the costs in doing so will be paid for by the museum.

The Lucas Museum is expected to have 1 million visitors per year and traffic modeling was performed with an extra 200,000 visitors in mind. It is expected that arrivals and departures to the museum will be multi-modal in nature between direct CTA bus service, CTA rail service within walking distance and a nearly adjacent Metra Electric station. Additionally, the Lucas Museum will include a Divvy station as well as 100 indoor bicycle parking spaces for both visitors and employees.

[existing site conditions on the left, Lucas Museum as planned on the right / renderings via Lucas Museum website]

The existing surface parking lot has 1500 spaces which will not be available during construction. Tailgaters will be directed to use other nearby lots including those at Burnham Harbor during the construction phase. After construction is complete, 560 spaces for tailgaters will be available on the event prairie. An additional 1500-2000 spaces in a brand new 5 level parking garage is also being considered. The new garage would be constructed between Lake Shore Drive and the Metra Electric tracks and would be subject to additional approvals. Even without new garage, a total of 4927 parking spaces is planned for the museum and Soldier Field, more spaces than what is required in the existing planned development zoning. It is anticipated that the museum's hours will only coincide with major Soldier Field events on approximately 10 days of the year, primarily during football season as most concerts are held in the evening hours.

During public testimony at the Plan Commission, Friends of the Parks and one private citizen spoke out against the proposal, while there were numerous positive comments made from supporters, including official statements of support form the following institutions:

-Near South Planning Board
-National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture
-Save Our Community
-Chinatown Chamber of Commerce
-Field Museum
-Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority
-After School Matters

The museum will now advance to the City Council Committee on Zoning on Tuesday, October 20 before receiving a full vote by the City Council to authorize its construction.

Shawn Ursini

Lucas Museum

1801-1931 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago IL