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How Much Is Public Space Worth?

By Chuck Sudo in News on Nov 21, 2014 3:00PM

Earth, stone and sky merge seamlessly in the innovative design of the Lucas Museum. (Image credit: Lucas Museum of Narrative Art)

Filmmaker George Lucas, at a Chicago Ideas Week forum at the Cadillac Palace Theatre last week, told interviewer Charlie Rose his wife Mellody Hobson planted the seed that eventually grew to Lucas deciding to build a museum for narrative art in Chicago.

"Don't worry. I'll talk to the mayor. I'm sure he'll love it," she told him, according to Lucas.

This was fresh in our mind when we were reading the latest article by investigative reporter David Sirota in the International Business Times where Sirota listed contributions to Emanuel's campaign fund from Hobson and others with ties to the proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

Hobson, who sits on the Lucas Museum board, donated a total of $31,500 to Emanuel's 2011 campaign for mayor. Executives from the Walt Disney Company contributed $13,800 to Emanuel's campaign fund, including CEO Robert Iger who donated $5,300.

The article continues Sirota's ongoing probe into Emanuel's fundraising machine and whether there may be ethical conflicts with them. At first glance, this latest piece from Sirota isn't as damning as his earlier report on the connections between investment banks managing Chicago pension funds and campaign contributions to Emanuel from those firms executives. As the president of Ariel Investments, chairwoman of Dreamworks SKG and seats on various business and nonprofit boards, Mellody Hobson has access to Chicago's power elite that doesn't require donating money to Emanuel's political campaigns in order to have a couple moments of his time. (Although it doesn't hurt.)

But the donations do raise a fundamental question at the heart of all the elections and political fighting in Chicago and Illinois right now: what is public space worth and who gets the say over how it's utilized?

It's why Friends of the Parks is suing to stop the Lucas Museum from being built on the lakefront, arguing the state of Illinois has final say over how the lakefront is developed under Public Trust Doctrine. If George Lucas' wife can simply donate some cash to a political campaign and help her husband get his pet project located in Chicago, what's next?