Plans rocky for North Grant Park
Residents, alderman see holes in park district's remodeling designs
07/11/2012 10:00 PM
The Chicago Park District’s plans for the Daley Bicentennial Plaza envision an activated downtown green space, but neighbors and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) have some issues with the ambitious project.
Situated between Columbus Drive and the Pritzker Pavilion to the west and the Cancer Survivors Garden to the east, the plaza is currently home to a fieldhouse and playground, an ice skating rink, four tennis courts and a garden walk which overlooks Buckingham Fountain and the museum campus to the south.
The park district recently unveiled plans for the plaza’s makeover, adding a number of new attractions and renaming it North Grant Park. The project, being led by New York-based landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, will go hand-in-hand with the renovation of a parking garage that operates below the 20-acre green space.
Designs for the new park include a new playground, two rock climbing structures and a “skating ribbon” that will effectively replace the current rink, which also serves as a basketball court in the summer. Under the plan, the tennis facilities would be replaced by six courts located in Peanut Park, just east of the Pavilion.
The project has been hailed as an improvement to a previous plan which sought to relocate the Chicago Children’s Museum into a semi-underground facility in the park’s footprint. But the park district could still hit some snags in winning approval for the new plan.
At a recent community meeting held by the community group New Eastside Association of Residents and CPD, neighbors who live near the park offered some criticisms to the new design, which would replace the blocky, somewhat sterile plaza with a system of curving pathways and a programming layout reminiscent of the sketches currently being touted for the renovation of Northerly Island.
Chief among resident concerns at the meeting, held at the plaza’s fieldhouse on Monday, was the question of how the park district would ensure the safety of children and park goers using the facilities.
Members of the audience argued that the relocated playground would be closer to the busy Lake Shore Drive throughway, upping the risk from the lot’s current location on the northern end of the plaza.
“This is what makes so many families move out of the city,” one mother stated.
Plans for the playground include a fence and a landscaped berm surrounding the area.
Others pointed out that, in addition to nullifying the rink for hockey use, the skating ribbon seemed to lack a border which would prevent users from skating off the winding path.
But the loudest complaints were aimed at the climbing structures, which, at a maximum height of 60 feet, appeared to residents to be rife with potential safety issues.
When asked by one audience member about the usage and supervision plan for the rock wall, CPD project manager Michael Lange stated that the facility would follow normal park district hours.
Regarding the operation of the rock climbing attraction, Lange said that the park district is “evaluating whether we will hire park district staff to manage the new piece…or hire a concessionaire to do this work,” adding that the rock wall probably wouldn’t be operational until 2015.
Others maintained that the four foot tall fence that would surround the structure would not be enough to keep people away from the walls at night. CPD currently operates other rock walls in its parks, such as the one at Broadway Armory Park, though none are located outside.
Ald. Reilly, who moderated the meeting, said that his major concern—and one that could determine his approval of the design before city council—was in regards to the forthcoming operating plan for the climbing walls.
“If a lot of investment is going to be put into these large, temporary structures, and it turns out that the concessionaires aren’t able to operate them properly or the park district doesn’t have the capacity to staff them, what do we have there?” he asked.
Lange said that construction on the park and the garage renovation was expected to begin this year, with completion slated for late 2014.
Bob O’Neill is president of the Grant Park Conservancy, a not-for-profit group that worked closely with the park district on the planning for the North Grant Park project.
O’Neill said that the criticism voiced at the NEAR meeting was a blip in the otherwise positive feedback that his group and the park district have fielded for the project, adding that he believed the rock climbing walls would pose no more of a safety risk than the skateboarding parks currently operated by the city.
The decision over what amenities should go into North Grant Park should be decided by people in all neighborhoods of Chicago, he said, not just the one’s nearest to the park — a sentiment echoed by Reilly at Monday’s meeting.
“Grant Park is Chicago’s Park, not one that belongs to just one neighborhood,” O’Neill said.