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Competing Plans To Be Unveiled For Sweeping Navy Pier Overhaul

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Updated 01/31/12 – 9:40 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Plans for a major redesign at Navy Pier are moving forward, and over the next couple of days, teams of architects will present their plans.

As WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports, Navy Pier remains the most popular tourist attraction in Chicago and the entire state of Illinois, but interest is down a bit, and calls have been mounting for some time for a redesign.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports


Four years before it turns 100 years old, Navy Pier is about to get an $85 million dollar facelift.

Whether the pier of the future will feature a massive staircase, giant toadstools and hillocks, or a 2,700-foot long floating park remains to be seen.

That’s because, in the coming weeks, Navy Pier’s operating board will choose from five finalist teams to see exactly which architect’s vision will become reality.

The AECOM/Bjarke Ingels Group’s vision includes a tubing hill in the winter and a towering garden built around pools of fish-filled water.

“It’s a proven technology, but nothing is being done in America on the scale that we are proposing to do here,” AECOM executive vice president Jacinta McCann said.

AECOM is one of more than 50 companies that originally vied for the right to overhaul Navy Pier. People at Tuesday night’s standing-room-only Pierscape presentation were impressed with the finalists.

“We saw some more conservative and also some more radical proposals,” Daniel Aronberg said. “But ultimately I think they’re all pretty good, because we’re redesigning something that’s civic and something that’s for the city of Chicago, so it’s good to see that.”

Some of those in attendance Tuesday night said they’re just glad they don’t have to pick the winner.

“I wouldn’t dare. I wouldn’t dare. I like the fact that they’re, all of them were talking about layering and creating greater walkways and access at different heights,” Madeline Rabb said.

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin outlined some of the proposed plans, which will be on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., over the next couple of days. Five teams of highly-regarded designers have submitted competing plans for a renovated Navy Pier.

The plans Kamin mentioned include:

• A tower called “the Glacier,” which would rise from the lake just east of Navy Pier and turn into an ice sculpture during the winter.

• Zigzagging boardwalks that jutting from the pier and bringing visitors closer to the waters of Lake Michigan. Kamin says the boardwalks may even allow for swimming access.

• A grand staircase sweeping upward from the amusement park area of the pier around the Ferris wheel, and providing striking views of the Chicago skyline.

• An aerial gondola to bring visitors to and from Navy Pier, thus avoiding downtown traffic congestion.

Kamin says the budget for the redesign is a fairly modest $85 million, so some of the more ambitious projects might not be realistic.

In 2010, the Urban Land Institute released a report calling for sweeping changes at Navy Pier.

Among the suggestions was dismantling the Ferris wheel that long ago gained iconic status, and replacing it with a new ride called the Great Chicago Wheel. The ride would operate year-round with enclosed, temperature-controlled cars.

The Urban Land Institute also called for a partially taxpayer-funded expansion of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to 950 seats, and for the redevelopment of the underused 170,000 square-foot Festival Hall.

A new children’s anchor for the Chicago Children’s Museum space was also suggested, but the museum ended up deciding to stay at Navy Pier.

Another since-abandoned redevelopment plan was unveiled in 2006. That plan was widely criticized for changes that would have made the pier look like Disney World.

In addition to a new spokeless Ferris wheel like the one suggested in Urban Land Institute report, 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.

Last year, Navy Pier was leased from the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, or McPier, to a new private, not-for-profit oversight agency.

The current design of Navy Pier 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.

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 almost 17.

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