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Plan Commission approves new hotel, elevated walkway at Navy Pier

A new walkway and reflecting pool are planned for the east end of Navy Pier. | Rendering courtesy of Chicago Plan Commission

The under-used east end of Navy Pier would come to life with an elevated walkway and reflecting pool under a new chapter of the pier’s centennial makeover advanced Thursday.

The Chicago Plan Commission also signed off on a seven-story, 240-room hotel, a seasonal ice-skating rink within the footprint of the fountain and surrounding lawn, a sloped-roof welcome pavilion with 4,000 square feet of café, retail, cultural and recreation space and short-term boat docking facilities on the north side of the pier.

The hotel is expected to come first, along the pier’s south dock. The rest of the improvements will depend on the generosity of private donors.

Plan Commission members were told Thursday that a $20 million gift from the Polk Bros. Foundation that bankrolled a new park at the entrance of Navy Pier and other elements of the phase-one makeover provides “great momentum” for the “very aggressive” fundraising campaign ahead.

“We’re currently under construction on the south end of Polk Bros. Park. The balance of the facilities would happen at some point in the future,” said Steven Haemmerle, executive vice-president of Navy Pier, Inc., the non-profit that runs the pier.

“We’re looking for philanthropic support for the other improvements,” he said. “There is no set, specified date. … In order to bring our plan to fruition, we’re gonna need help from the community at large. We feel good and hope we can get there.”

The elevated walkway on the east end of the pier known as the “Lake Overlook” is the marquee feature. The 12-foot-wide path juts out over Lake Michigan. It also includes a shallow pool that designers call a “Lake Mirror.”

The Chicago Plan Commission also OK’d a 240-room hotel along the south side of Navy Pier.  | Rendering provided by Chicago Plan Commission
The Chicago Plan Commission also OK’d a 240-room hotel along the south side of Navy Pier. | Rendering provided by Chicago Plan Commission

Sarah Astheimer, a principal of James Corner Field Operations, landscape architects for the redevelopment of Navy Pier, called the east end “one of the most important” but “most under-utilized, least-visited parts” of the pier.

“In order to restore its day-to-day social life and bring people to this magical place, a compelling reasons for visitors to make the lengthy trip to the end of the pier needs to be offered. And once they’re there, there needs to be the opportunity for an experience commensurate with the journey,” Astheimer said.

“Our design … responds to this with a symmetrical and open plan. … The overlook walk is simple, symmetrical, contemporary and elegant with gently sloping pedestrian pathways that lift people off the pier. It cantilevers them over the water in three dramatic moments and provides new unique vantages for viewing the lake, the city and the historic grand ballroom.”

Already, 400,000 people have ridden the new and bigger Ferris wheel that opened to the public on Memorial Day. The now-completed Phase One project also includes the Polk Bros. Park and plaza and a south dock makeover with new restaurants and recreation space.

“Daniel Burnham called it the ‘people’s pier’ and that it is. It’s been truly rewarding to see the new pier come to life and see the way our guests are interacting with the incredible new space,” said Marilynn Gardner, president and CEO of Navy Pier, Inc.

“With this commission’s approval, when winter arrives, our spectacular fountain at the gateway to the pier will transform into an ice skating rink for year-round activation of the park.”

Gail Spreen of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents said she is all for the Phase 2 facelift. But she urged Navy Pier, Inc. to update its 2014 traffic plan and improve the lighting, signs and aesthetics of the Illinois Street/Grand Avenue corridor in a way that could “improve connectivity” between Navy Pier and Michigan Avenue.

Spreen also raised concerns about Polk Bros. Park.

“Currently, there are many elements in the plan for the front of Navy Pier, presenting an almost cluttered feel to the entrance of the pier. Included are the family pavilion, the new fountain and two performance stages, along with seating, bike rental, buses and traffic running in-between,” Spreen said.

“We ask that the performance stages be installed one at a time to see if they are truly needed and used. We also ask that any amplified speakers are aimed toward the lake as there is a community of residents who live right next door.”

Navy Pier officials want to make the east end of the facility more inviting and worth the trip. | Chicago Plan Commission rendering
Navy Pier officials want to make the east end of the facility more inviting and worth the trip. | Chicago Plan Commission rendering