Emanuel launches design contest to make Chicago 'city of lights'

Written By Fran Spielman Posted: 06/04/2014, 09:29am

Calling it a “seminal project” with huge potential to boost tourism, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has launched an international design competition to find a team to deliver on his promise to transform Chicago into “North America’s city of lights.”

The so-called “request for concept design proposals” for a “citywide lighting framework plan” comes four months after Emanuel shined the light on his controversial plan to turn Chicago into a Midwest version of Paris: “La Ville Lumiere, the City of Light.”

By July 7, teams of artists, building and landscape architects, engineers, urban and graphic designers must envision ways to spotlight five Chicago signatures: the Chicago River, iconic buildings, 180 bridges, a CTA L system that’s one of the most “physically striking” in the world and Lower Wacker Drive.

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“Chicago has a rich history of innovation, events, architecture, museums and festivals. Yet this is not reflected in how the rest of the world views Chicago,” the bid document states.

“A world-class lighting installation has the potential to change this perception of visitors as well as elevate the daily experience of Chicago residents. … This competition is a contemporary opportunity to change how people light urban areas and how people experience the city after dark.”

An addendum to the bid document shows “Flickr tourist intensity images” of six cities among the world’s top tourist destinations: London, Barcelona, Madrid, Prague, Berlin and Edinburgh. All six have “very defined tourist pathways,” the document states.

Chicago mapping, by contrast, shows roughly seven “disconnected clusters” of tourists at Navy Pier, the John Hancock Center, Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River, Millennium Park, Willis Tower, Buckingham Fountain and the Museum Campus, the city states.

“The lighting framework plan will create connections between those elements that encourage tourists to explore the city’s neighborhoods. [It will] help them in navigating and extending the tourist experience, establishing Chicago as a place to spend a few days — not just a few hours,” the bid document states.

Emanuel wants to use a spectacular citywide light show to accomplish a new and 10 percent higher goal of attracting 55 million annual visitors by 2020.

“There is a tipping point to tourism decisions. There must be many opportunities, strategically choreographed throughout the visit to make the decision to visit and stay an extra day worthwhile,” the bid document states.

The painstaking process of selecting a design team is expected to be accomplished in three phases and be completed by the end of summer.

Phase One will narrow the field based on respondent qualifications. Phase Two calls for an “overall design strategy” that includes “preliminary implementation of phasing” and “innovative financing.” The third and final phase will include a “design proposal, oral interview, public presentation and fee proposal for short-listed” teams. All four finalists will receive $25,000.

The Illinois Coalition for Responsible Outdoor Lighting has ridiculed Emanuel for suggesting that Chicago be turned into “North America’s city of lights” at the same time that Paris, the global “City of Light,” has toned it down.

Last year, the French Environment Ministry ordered Paris buildings and storefronts to turn off artificial lights between the hours of 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. The environmental edict did not affect the Eiffel Tower and other major landmarks.

“It’s somewhat ironic that the mayor wants to turn Chicago into the Paris of North America when the Paris of France has finally figured out that creating lots of extra light to dump into the night is both wasteful of money and energy and really bad for the environment,” the coalition’s Drew Carhart wrote in a January email to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) has noted that the plan to light up Chicago comes at the same time that Emanuel’s Infrastructure Trust launches a $13 million plan to make 60 government buildings more energy-efficient.

“We’re trying to conserve energy and show how respectful we are of the environment, yet here we go. City of lights. It borders on the absurd that we’re going to be doing this at this time,” Fioretti said.

The bid document braces for that environmental argument by demanding that respondents “seamlessly integrate the goals” of Chicago’s 2015 Sustainable Action Agenda. They also must be “sensitive to wildlife” and avoid “light pollution.”

“The biggest and the brightest does not mean the best,” the document states.

 “The lighting framework plan recognizes the importance of minimizing energy use impact.”

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