Navy Pier trading its schlock for sleek in redesign

NavyFrom the Saturday, May 16, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

It’s the most well attended tourist attraction in the state and offers perhaps the best view of Chicago’s skyline that you can get with your feet planted on the ground, but Navy Pier has felt like a sinking ship for years.

It’s been that heavy with schlock.

Wading 3,000 feet out into the waters of Lake Michigan, the pier originally was envisioned as part of legendary architect Daniel Burnham’s celebrated 1909 Plan of Chicago.

However, over time, it crumbled into disrepair and largely remained that way until 1995 when, at a cost of $225 million, Navy Pier was completely remade as a mix of souvenir shops, sprawling exhibition halls, cultural attractions and public spaces.

That ’90s-style renovation, heavy on carnival-style kitsch and loud colors, proved appealing enough for Navy Pier to begin drawing more than 8 million people a year, re-establishing it as Illinois’ top tourist attraction, an honor the pier also held during the ’50s, when 3.2 million visited annually.

But as the pier closes in on its 100th birthday in 2016 having seen attendance dip a bit in recent years, it’s long been in dire need of a 21st-century makeover. And after visiting earlier this month, I can say that it’s finally getting one so good that I believe will stand the test of time.

And not just a couple of decades.

Back in 2011, having recognized the pier’s already outdated look, the honchos in charge launched a high-profile design competition with the intention of remaking Navy Pier’s gaudy public spaces into something more architecturally appealing. Said officials at the time following a study of the site, “The Navy Pier that exists today is the result of a business strategy that emphasized quantity and diversity of uses over architectural enhancements. 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.”

After receiving more than 50 design entries, the $278 million “Centennial Vision” revitalization project was ultimately (and wisely) awarded to James Corner Field Operations. As the landscape architecture firm behind New York’s celebrated High Line park. Corner and his staff took a 1½-mile stretch of an abandoned railway viaduct along Manhattan’s West Side and transformed it into a winding public park featuring beautiful landscaping and gathering spaces that draw millions of visitors each year.

Having experienced it twice, the High Line is truly spectacular and after visiting Navy Pier this month, I was thrilled to see a very similar revitalization already well under way. Along the north side of the pier, the often-congested concrete pedestrian walkway along the waterfront has been opened up and repaved in an attractive gray stone pattern.

Trees have been planted throughout with angular wooden benches accentuating the new design. And best of all, the circus-like exterior and interior designs of Navy Pier’s structures are being replaced with a sleek and sweeping gray look that feels at home amidst the lapping lake.

On the docket is a complete transformation of all of the pier’s public spaces, including Gateway Park at the west entrance of the pier, Crystal Garden, Pier Park, East End Park, the South Dock and various smaller public spaces. The work will include further enhancing the pier’s landscaping and adding water features, public art and additional lighting.

Last month, officials announced that due to a change in contractors, the centerpiece of the work – renovation of the family pavilion area – has been delayed to fall 2016. But the new Navy Pier already is worth a look.

It’s definitely on the rise.