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Navy Pier Picks Firm For Sweeping New Design

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CHICAGO (CBS) — The board of Navy Pier has picked a New York design firm to upgrade its public spaces.

James Corner Field Operations was selected Thursday, on the recommendation of a strategic planning committee, to head up the effort called “Pierscape.”

Corner was among five finalists in a search that started six months ago, with 52 submissions to redesign the public spaces.

In a promotional video, Corner points out that unlike other major waterfront cities, the Chicago lakefront is largely green. Corner also defines the area from Michigan Avenue eastward from Illinois Street to Lake Street as a “culture mile,” and identified Navy Pier as city-to-lake extension of that district.

Corner broke up the pier into “social rooms” that extend internal activities to the outside, and suggested upgrades for each space.

Under the plan, a new event plaza would be added to the Gateway Park in front of the pier, new shade trees and a restaurant terrace flanking the South Dock alongside the Chicago Children’s Museum, and new hanging gardens of “large-scale vegetal pods” to create a “magical living room” in the Crystal Gardens.

Pier Park, the amusement park area of the pier, would be upgraded with new Ferris wheel cars – but not a completely new Ferris wheel as some previous design plants have suggested. New topiary gardens are also planned.

Corner plans to extend the Chicago Shakespeare Theater to add flexible stages for smaller performances and events, including a new lake pavilion on the South Dock.

Some of the most sweeping changes are planned for what the firm calls the “Lake Room” surrounding the Grand Ballroom – the one part of Navy Pier that has actually changed little since the days before Navy Pier opened as a tourist attraction in 1995.

The plan for the area calls for an incline with soaring steps, a new restaurant and café, and a boardwalk with steps leading down to a space that will operate as a pool in the warmer months and an ice skating rink in winter. On the opposite side of the ballroom, Corner proposes green space in the form of a “hidden nature ecotone.”

Navy Pier Inc. Board president Sarah Garvey said in a news release that the project will still receive more definition to reflect practicality, functionality, and the availability of the money to build it.

The redesign “will, undoubtedly, contribute to transforming Navy Pier into a world-class venue,” Garvey said.

James Corner Field Operations gained international recognition for projects including New York City’s Highline, where the firm turned a 1.45-mile stretch of abandoned railway viaduct into a public park, the release said. That project spanned six years.

A similar project is set to begin in Chicago, in which the old Bloomingdale Line railroad will become the 2.7-mile Bloomingdale Trail public park. But Corner is not involved in that project.

Corner is also involved with work on the Seattle Central Waterfront and Santa Monica Civic Center Parks, and has been selected to design Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London.

Other proposed designs that did not make the cut featured 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, and an aerial gondola to bring visitors to and from Navy Pier, thus avoiding downtown traffic congestion.

Published reports said the budget for the redesign was only $85 million, which would limit the most ambitious ideas.

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

Among the suggestions was dismantling the iconic Ferris wheel and replacing it with a new ride called the Great Chicago Wheel. The ride would have operated year-round with enclosed, temperature-controlled cars.

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

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.

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.

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.

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