Meet the new Navy Pier
Navy Pier officials introduced plans Friday to improve the appearance and layout of the lakefront tourist attraction, hoping to spruce it up for its 2016 centennial while laying a path for additional private investment.
The $115 million project calls for refurbishing its buildings and adding parks and landscaping to its public spaces. If finished as imagined, it would drastically alter how people experience the area’s top tourist attraction.
Navy Pier officials promise these changes by summer 2015 as part of a $115 million modernization:
The pier’s owner, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, has sold bonds to cover the costs. Officials said the work could bring in $35 million from new restaurants and other businesses.
The promise of additional income from tourism justifies the expense in a time of government cutbacks elsewhere, said Jim Reilly, CEO of the pier authority, which also owns McCormick Place.
Plans were drafted in consultation with James Corner, head of New York architectural firm James Corner Field Operations, who called the end result “more practical, more pragmatic” than some ideas floated in the past. Corner won the job in an architectural competition last year.
Corner said the pier needs the revamp. “It is still looking a little old, in need of refreshment. It suffers from clutter or the accumulation of bits and pieces and things over time. It perhaps could have a stronger social dimension,” he said.
The pier work got short shrift this week when Mayor Rahm Emanuel packaged it with his plan for new hotels and a DePaul University-anchored arena near McCormick Place. The arena requires a change in state law, but Reilly said no action is needed for Navy Pier to start its upgrades.
Corner’s proposal promises to enliven the pier along its 3,000-foot length, from a new Gateway Park with a fountain on the west end to a more contemplative lookout point jutting into Lake Michigan on the east end. Linking them would be a new South Dock walkway that Corner promised would be “significantly greener” than it is now.
The most disruptive construction is scheduled to take place over the winter, when traffic at the pier dramatically slows. Officials said the goal is to finish it by summer 2015.
The pier drew a record 9.2 million visitors last year, but officials hope that by keeping up appearances and adding events, it can draw more visitors to linger year-round and lift attendance during the slow winter months.
The plans call for adding restaurants on the pier’s east end. These would cater more to adults, in contrast to the family-oriented businesses closer to the Chicago Children’s Museum at the pier. The museum plans its own $26 million expansion now that it has signed a lease to remain on the pier.
Critics said the emphasis on looks won’t solve the pier’s problem of drawing a winter crowd.
Local Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) has accused the mayor of using public money the city doesn’t have to build an arena the city doesn’t need. He’s also underwhelmed by the facelift that Emanuel is counting on to draw 2 million more patrons annually to Navy Pier, arguing there is no “wow factor” and no new attractions.
Reilly disputed that view.
“Survey after survey over 17 years show people go to the pier, primarily to be on the pier and to walk out onto the water,” Reilly said. “Bob could say the same thing about Millennium Park. Unless there’s a concert going on, there isn’t anything special to do at Millennium Park. It’s just beautiful and people love being there.”
Increasing attendance is a matter of adding programs as well as changing the look, said Marilynn Gardner, president of Navy Pier, the nonprofit operation that manages the tourist attraction.
Gardner said the public investment will draw additional restaurants and retailers. The pier’s board, she said, “is looking at the makeup and the mix of tenants moving forward.”
A second phase of improvements could follow that would depend on commercial, corporate and philanthropic sponsorships. One possibility is a hotel coming to the pier to bolster its trade show business.