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Report Calls For Overhaul At Navy Pier

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Navy Pier

(credit: navypier.com)

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CHICAGO (CBS) - A city planning group is recommending some major changes to Navy Pier, including a new, year-round Ferris wheel and a new family attraction to replace the Chicago Children’s Museum.

But the new changes are modest compared with a 2006 overhaul proposal, which would have turned the state’s top tourist attraction into a theme park.

The new plans to refresh Navy Pier were recommended by the Urban Land Institute to the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, or McPier, which operates Navy Pier and McCormick Place. The group says Navy Pier should be turned into more of a “People’s Pier.”

While the Navy Pier Ferris wheel long ago gained iconic status, the new plan would replace it with a new ride called the Great Chicago Wheel. The ride would operate year-round with enclosed, temperature-controlled cars.

The plan also calls for a new children’s anchor to replace the Chicago Children’s Museum, which is expected to move to Daley Bicentennial Plaza in Grant Park. Among the suggestions are Kidzania or Legoland Discovery Centre.

The Urban Land Institute is also calling for McPier to help fund the expansion of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to 950 seats, and for the redevelopment of the underused 170,000 square-foot Festival Hall.

The Festival Hall currently hosts trade shows and the annual Winter WonderFest carnival. The Urban Land Institute is suggesting the space be used for a new 4,000-seat concert venue, an ice skating rink, or a sports facility with changeable flooring.

The plan also calls for upgrades to parts of Navy Pier that appear “old and dated.” The group charged that the Pier “has a 1980s look and does not feel fresh,” particularly at the indoor-mall style Family Pavilion where the entrances to the Children’s Museum and IMAX Theatre are located.

Among the suggested upgrades are “a revitalized graphic package” and a new design for the food court.

The plan also called for better utilization of the historic Grand Ballroom at the east end of Navy Pier, and suggested that McPier consider leasing to a boutique hotel of 200 to 400 rooms.

An expansion of retail, dining and nightlife is also in order, according to the Urban Land Institute report. The group suggested a “destination restaurant” should move in, and as it is, a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant is moving into the space now occupied by Charlie’s Ale House next spring.

The Urban Land Institute was highly critical of some elements of Navy Pier.

In particular, the group called the Skyline Stage “too small and, being open to the elements, too seasonal.” The group also called the WBEZ-Chicago Public Radio studios “disconnected from Navy Pier’s overall entertainment focus,” but did not issue any suggestion that the radio station should move out.

But dramatic though the suggested changes might sound, they were a far cry from a January 2006 plan that would have made Navy Pier resemble Disney World.

In addition to a new spokeless Ferris wheel like the one suggested in the latest plan, the 2006 plan also called for a roller coaster, a 400-room floating hotel, a monorail running the length of the pier, and an 80,000 square-foot indoor water park with a Great Lakes theme. That plan would have cost $2 billion.

Navy Pier as we now know it dates from 1995, when a $200 million redevelopment was completed. The Family Pavilion, Crystal Garden, Ferris wheel and carousel opened to much fanfare in the summer of that year, along with the food court and new restaurants. The Shakespeare Theater followed in 1999, and the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows in 2000.

For decades prior to that, Navy Pier was considered underutilized. In the 1970s and ’80s, Navy Pier hosted Mayor Jane Byrne’s ChicagoFest, art fairs, and the WBEZ-Old Town School of Folk Music “Flea Market” concerts, but had no permanent attractions.

After the 1995 redevelopment, Navy Pier quickly became the state’s top tourist attraction. But McPier officials have said the intention was to refresh the Pier every 10 years, whereas it has now been 15.

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