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Navy Pier Upgrades To Target Year-Round Visitors

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This artist rendering shows what Navy Pier could look like with proposed upgrades. (MPEA)

This artist rendering shows what Navy Pier could look like with proposed upgrades. (MPEA)

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UPDATED 06/30/11 6:00 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — After years of discussion, Navy Pier now plans to go ahead with big changes designed to attract more visitors year-round.

The announcement of planned upgrades in a new framework report came late Thursday morning.

Navy Pier executives say they’ve got the vision down, and they want to expand the venue from nightlife and entertainment to retail options and restaurants.

But the plan is nowhere near being finalized, and executives emphasize that they are still taking ideas and asking for public input.

“Navy Pier is not broken,” Navy Pier executive director of development Steven Haemmerle said. “It’s a wonderful and spectacular place now. So we need to remember that what we’re doing is building upon something that’s already successful.”

The total price tag for this proposed renovation is estimated at $155 million.  Of that, $50 million would come from the Metropolitan Pier Exposition Authority.  The rest of the money would come from private donations and corporate fundraising and even naming rights.

The plans coincide with a move by the MPEA, or McPier, to hand over control of the venue to a new not-for-profit organization, called Navy Pier Inc. That takes effect Friday.

A major component of the framework plan is a potential expansion of the Chicago Children’s Museum. This represents a 180-degree turn from what had been planned three years ago, when the City Council approved a controversial $100 million plan to move the Children’s Museum from Navy Pier to Daley Bicentennial Plaza in Grant Park.

That earlier plan became a political hot potato. Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) objected to it when it was discussed in 2008, but since-retired Mayor Richard M. Daley came out strongly in favor of it and claimed that those who oppose it were motivated by racism directed at the children who would visit.

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But earlier this year, talk began to turn toward keeping the museum at Navy Pier.

The plan also calls for an expansion of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, including the construction of a new building described by the Chicago Tribune as “distinctly shaped.” The expansion could bring a new 950-seat facility complement the 500- and 200-seat auditoriums now at the theater – possibly replacing the existing Skyline Stage.

Also in the proposal are plans for more green space – including parks and creative landscaping – and more restaurants and stores. The plan also calls for a boutique hotel at the pier’s east end.

But plans for a larger, spokeless Ferris wheel, which have been discussed for several years, might be scrapped due to the cost and the amount of space that would be required, the Tribune reported.

The projected cost of the plan is $155 million, although officials say that will likely change as they move forward.

Reception to the proposed changes was positive Thursday, among both tourists and staff.

“I definitely would tell friends and family. I think with more restaurants and more activities for children it would bring, certainly, even more families to the area,” said Kelly Giguere of New Hampshire. “There’ll be plenty to do for everybody.”

“I think it’s a great idea, especially since I’m the manager here at the Bike and Roll,” said Brooke Kotz. “I think it would be great for us and all the other vendors on the pier. I usually deal with a lot of Europeans, and people across the country across the pier. You don’t see a lot of Chicagoans here; kind of sad.”

Navy Pier officials say you will likely see gradual changes early next year. They are currently looking for an international firm to take the lead to help plan the landscape and layout.

In November of last year, the Urban Land Institute released a report that characterized Navy Pier as stale and out-of-date, and said it should be turned into more of a “People’s Pier.”

It called for replacing the now-iconic Ferris wheel with a new, spokeless ride called “The Great Chicago Wheel” with temperature-controlled cars. It also called for the Shakespeare Theater expansion that is expected in the Thursday plan, and for a rethinking of the Festival Hall space, which currently hosts trade shows and the annual Winter WonderFest carnival.

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