Navy Pier revamp keeps kids

Museum may drop push for Grant Park space

07/06/2011 10:00 PM

Contributing Reporter

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Navy Pier brought in 8.7 million visitors last year.
Courtesy NAVY PIER

An ambitious — and pricy — makeover for Navy Pier seems to signal the death knell for a once-controversial plan to pull the Chicago Children’s Museum from the popular lakefront attraction.

Last Thursday, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority and newly formed nonprofit Navy Pier, Inc. released a framework plan that outlined a series of initiatives aimed at revitalizing the pier as a world-class destination for tourists and residents.

The 3300-foot long pier is currently the state’s top-ranking tourist attraction, bringing in 8.7 million visitors last year, according to the MPEA. Still, the pier’s visitorship has been on the mend over the past decade, with annual attendance dropping from 9 million to 8.1 million visitors between 2000 and 2009.

Dubbed the “Centennial Vision” to mark Navy Pier’s 100th anniversary in 2016, the plan envisions an interior renovation of the pier’s Family Pavilion, which houses an IMAX Theater, an indoor botanical garden and a number of restaurants and shops. Designs also call for the development of a boutique hotel at the east end of the pier.

The overhauled pier will be “authentically Chicago and appeal to regional, national and international visitors,” said MPEA Trustee Jim Reilly in a statement.

Central to the plan is the goal of expanding the pier’s two major institutions, the Chicago Children’s Museum and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Plans for the theater’s growth foresee the addition of a 950-seat house to join its existing 200- and 500-seat facilities.

Pier officials hinted at a 100,000-square-foot expansion of the museum’s campus in the pavilion, stating in the release that while “plans are not final, possible Pier locations for the expansions are under discussion.”

According to a release announcing the plan, the two organizations are expected to play a pivotal role in funding the initiative, which early estimations tagged at around $155 million.

The MPEA, which receives tourism tax dollars, is expected to provide $50 million in seed money for the plan. Other potential funding sources cited in the plan included revenues from naming rights agreements, fundraising by Navy Pier, Inc. and surplus cash flow from pier operations.

A spokesperson for CST said that the pier and the theater are currently “determining the scope of the project and the associated costs and potential economic impact.”

Museum spokesperson Brett Taylor declined to comment on funding strategies for the the Centennial Vision, but stated that the museum “is actively pursuing a future home at Navy Pier.”

“There are no other details to share at this time,” Taylor wrote in an email.

News of the possible expansion at the pier effectively resets prospects for the museum, which for the last few years has been dancing around plans to move from its current location to a new setting in nearby Grant Park.

In September of 2007, CCM representatives wheeled out a $100 million plan for the museum to be redeveloped at the site of the East Monroe Garage at the northern end of the park.

The proposal — supported by Mayor Richard M. Daley and the Chicago Park District — was collectively booed by media outlets, architecture critics and park advocates alike, who said that the two-story attraction, to be built mostly underground, would be a flagrant misuse of green space.

Leading the charge against the relocation in city hall was Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose ward encompasses both the pier and the targeted area of the park.

“There is only one Grant Park and it should remain forever open, clear and free for future generations … to enjoy for many years to come,” Reilly said in a statement shortly after plans for the relocation were announced.

Skyline was unable to reach Reilly for comment for this story.

The matter eventually went before a Cook County Circuit Court Judge when residents charged that the city had violated the Lakefront Protection Ordinance during the hearing process before the Chicago Plan Commission.

Estimated costs for the project eventually soared to $150 million, and news outlets in 2009 reported that financial troubles had put the museum on the fence as to whether it would see the move through.

While lauding the pier initiative, the museum has yet to say whether it will be the final nail in the coffin for the Grant Park relocation.

Taylor said that CCM’s vision for has remained the same: “to create a world-class children’s museum that best serves Chicago’s children and families.”

“Where ever we make our future home, this has been and always will be our top priority,” he wrote.

Navy Pier, Inc. is currently shopping for a design team to draft the Centennial Vision plan. No timeline has been set for the project’s completion.

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