On a sun-drenched afternoon in mid-May, dozens of protesters costumed in hardhats and lime-green smocks marched outside the Loop office of Friends of the Parks. The faux workers chanted their disgust with the preservation group for jeopardizing plans to make Chicago the site of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art—and potentially costing the city hundreds of construction and tech jobs. “A small group of elitists with no commitment to the brown people of this city!” bellowed Rev. Leon Finney. “Public enemy No. 1!”
Earlier that month, Mellody Hobson, an influential financial executive and George Lucas’s wife, similarly lashed out at the group, calling it “no friend of Chicago” and accusing it of blocking an institution that would inspire the city’s “young black and brown children.” A commenter on FOTP’s Facebook page put it more succinctly: “You guys are garbage.”
Well, then. Quite the fighting words against a meekly named nonprofit with the mission to safeguard urban green space. It has only four people on staff and a couple dozen board members. But FOTP’s recent battles have been anything but timid: Between the Lucas museum and the Obama library, its targets are about as high profile as you can get.
“Our group is tenacious because we’re trying to protect our lakefront. That’s a big part of what makes Chicago so special,” says Juanita Irizarry, FOTP’s executive director. “We are trying to uphold the law, not win a popularity contest.”
Open land advocates have been fighting developers over green issues for generations, of course. But never has this parks group stalled such a major development as the Lucas museum. Though it pressed hard against the Obama library’s plans to build on parkland, it gave up last year on a threatened lawsuit. (Really, who’s gonna win against the president?)
Taking on such glitzy projects has left FOTP susceptible to criticism that it’s a band of snobs with a selfish, one-issue agenda: to control the lakefront. Still, most people—even some Lucas museum backers—acknowledge that the advocates are just fighting for what they believe in. “It’s not like they are on the side of evil,” Lee Bey, a former architecture writer for the Sun-Times who was on the mayor’s committee that recommended the lakefront site, told WGN radio. “These are the ideological descendants of people who fought really great battles for this city—the parks advocates who tied themselves to trees back in the 1960s and ’70s to keep a roadway from cutting through Jackson Park.”
The group’s origins can be traced to a 1974 Chicago article titled “A Slow Death for the Parks,” in which advocates called for the creation of the “ultimate pressure group” to fight for the preservation of open space. Friends of the Parks was created the next year. Since then, it has taken on high-profile battles (see our timeline below), sure, but also campaigned for more mundane causes: plant-filled medians along Lake Shore Drive, equitable children’s programming in parks serving low-income neighborhoods, and grants to build sports fields.
Its board includes prominent architect John Buenz of Solomon Cordwell Buenz, neurologist Serge Pierre-Louis, and developer and City Hall insider Oscar D’Angelo. It brought in about $569,000 last year through fundraising, grants, and membership dues. Donors can earmark contributions for a subfund dedicated to supporting FOTP’s legal work.
FOTP’s most spectacular loss came in 2003, when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against its lawsuit to stop the construction of a saucer-shaped football stadium inside Soldier Field’s historic colonnades. But the group learned a key strategy from that defeat: With the Lucas museum, it bypassed state court for federal court, where it found a federal trust that keeps Chicago shoreline in public hands and a judge—John W. Darrah—who was unencumbered by local political interests. (No matter that the proposed museum site is actually on a parking lot south of Soldier Field.)
The city has appealed, naturally. But even if FOTP eventually loses, which looks unlikely, it promises to retroactively take the battle to state court, tossing the museum into a lengthy legal quagmire. It’s all too much of a headache for Lucas, who has begun looking elsewhere.
To help ward off criticism over its perceived elitism, FOTP in September hired Irizarry as its executive director—the spitfire Humboldt Park activist most recently fought for affordable housing along the 606. “I go to neighborhood protests for fun,” she says with a laugh. “Most of my years have been outside the mainstream and calling on government to be accountable to the neighborhoods.”
No matter how the Lucas saga ultimately ends, the group’s leaders say they will hold true to their mission to protect open lands and the shoreline. “If not us, who’s to stop the next billionaire from buying part of the lakefront for his own use?” says Lauren Moltz, the FOTP’s chairman and a 20-year board member, who lives in Hyde Park. “I mean, who’s the elitist here? These are powerful people who are organizing a campaign against us. Our board is diverse, racially, regionally, economically. They call us elitists and Chardonnay sippers. Well, I’m a South Sider and a vodka drinker.”
Choice of drink notwithstanding, if FOTP pushes the Lucas museum far, far away, many Chicagoans will believe the group’s gone to the dark side.