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A new look for Navy Pier? This winter, it’s in the works

From the Saturday, Dec. 17, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

A new look for Navy Pier? This winter, it’s in the works

The WISCH LIST

Dec. 17, 2011

So, who goes to Navy Pier in December?

Well, as it turns out, a whole lot of people apparently.

At least, that was the case this past Tuesday when I strolled out there on a night when the pier’s IMAX theater was premiering the highly anticipated prologue for the 2012 finale of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Besides the bat, the evening’s unseasonably warm weather certainly didn’t hurt the crowd’s size, either.
Five years from now, though, if pier officials have their way, Chicago’s best-known dock will be drawing more people to it than ever before. And they’ll

come to see a Navy Pier that’s far different – and more beautiful – than the one existing today.

Who knows, perhaps, they’ll even show up to see it during the wintertime – no IMAX premiere necessary.

Wading 3,000 feet out into the waters of Lake Michigan, Navy Pier originally was envisioned as part of legendary architect Daniel Burnham’s celebrated 1909 Plan of Chicago. But, today, as the old pier closes in on her 100th birthday in 2016, she’s in need of a makeover – even if her last one came just 16 years ago.

(Hey, cut the pier some slack. After all, the pier is 95.)

Back in 1995, at a cost of $225 million, Chicago’s once-crumbling municipal dock was remade as a mix of shops, exhibition halls, cultural attractions and public spaces that proved appealing enough to re-establish Navy Pier as Illinois’ top tourist attraction, now drawing more than 8 million people a year. It had previously held that same honor during the 1950s, when 3.2 million visited annually.

Recently, however, the pier’s attendance has experienced a slight drop and many Chicagoans – including pier officials and myself – consider it to now be more tacky than attractive.

“The Navy Pier that exists today is the result of a business strategy that emphasized quantity and diversity of uses over architectural enhancements,” said a plan that pier officials unveiled last June. The pier is so carnival-like, according to the analysis, that it is widely regarded as a tourist trap even though fewer than one-third of its visitors come from outside the Chicago area.”

In order to change that perception – which also in many ways is a reality – the honchos at Navy Pier this year launched a high-profile design competition intended to refresh and remake those gaudy public spaces into something more architecturally appealing.

As part of “The Centennial Vision” in recognition of the pier’s upcoming 100th anniversary, the competition is intended to re-energize Navy Pier by putting taking the landmark’s focus away from kitsch and putting it where belongs: On the beauty created by the confluence of Lake Michigan, Chicago’s lakefront parks and the city’s breathtaking skyline.

Last month, the architectural firms vying for the $85 million in funding to re-imagine the “pierscape” was whittled down to five finalists. Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin said in a column two weeks ago that their visions could include such features as new green spaces to transform the pavement-heavy pier into an extension of lakefront parks, interactive fountains and pools, as well as sculptures and lighting elements that unify the experience.

Not included in the contest, but related to it, will be an upcoming redesign of the pier’s shopping arcade and Family Pavilion as well as the anticipated expansions of the Chicago Children’s Museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Designs for the contest are due Jan. 24 and will be exhibited to the public starting Feb. 2. In mid-February, the winning team will be announced.

My suggestion: Do it on IMAX.