Fighting to protect Chicago’s parks from mini-banks, tea stores, and the Lucas Museum

Curbed Chicago sets up the likely coming battle over using public space for the Lucas Museum:

Since late Spring, a small “pop-up bank” operated by PNC Bank has sat in Grant Park. It’s a bright orange and blue shipping container with doors and windows and an ATM. The park district earns $120,000 annually from the small structure, but many folks are not happy with its location in the park. DNAInfo has reports of numerous complaints about the very idea of a bank opening “It seems to go against the nature of the park itself,” a citizen tells DNAInfo.

The Park District is okay with it, obviously, in part because of the payola but also because, according to them, it’s not a permanent structure. In their mind, it’s a temporary vendor like you might find several dozen of in the park during Taste of Chicago. But is it the same? And where are the limits? What if Starbucks wants to open a mini-cafe right next to the PNC to capture the millions of visitors Grant Park will receive this summer? Why wouldn’t they?…

And consider Connors Park, to the north of downtown a few blocks from John Hancock tower. The squat little park is now home to an Argo Tea pavilion which just celebrated its one year anniversary of the location. Initially there was confusion about whether the park was still a park, and if it was okay to sit and enjoy the park without buying a tea. At a celebration for the one year anniversary, staff told us that with recent changes to the signage that confusion has dissipated and that neighbors know they’re welcome…

But the fact that these two issues are even issues at all speaks to the city’s constant vigilance against abuse of the parks, and it explains why despite being a seeming “slam dunk,” the Soldier Field parking lot location chosen for the Lucas Museum won’t come without a fight. This isn’t a quarter-block tea house or a 160 square-foot mini-bank, it’s a massive, multi-million-dollar development that has already captured the attention of the nation. As Chicagoist puts it, The Debate Over The Lucas Museum Has Only Started.

There are two levels to this:

1. What seems like an increased interest in many cities in ensuring that public spaces stay public. What can happen in these parks? Is there enough public space as opposed to private space masquerading as public space?

2. The special circumstances in Chicago that suggest the land near the lake needs to remain for public use. All sorts of ideas can pop up for a lakefront – I was reminded again recently about the older Mayor Daley’s suggestion that Chicago should build a major airport out in Lake Michigan – so having these guidelines has been a big boon. Yet, it is hard for a city that is chasing elite status (perhaps due to its own insecurity) to turn down a figure like George Lucas in such a location. Additionally, such a battle could give opponents of Rahm Emanuel an excuse to pick a battle.

Maybe all this represents one of the major trade-offs in today’s world: just how much do want corporate interests or the interests of powerful people overrule the rights of others? Constructing a museum like this isn’t the end of the world for Chicago but it may seem like another event in a long line of concessions to growth machines.

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