Navy Pier’s “carnival-like, 30-year-old aesthetics” would be replaced with “open, green space,” a hotel and a host of new attractions under an ambitious overhaul advanced Monday.
Those changes, it is hoped, would help boost year-round attendance by 33 percent within five years, a pier official said.
The City Council’s Zoning Committee signed off on a long-awaited makeover of the state’s No. 1 tourist attraction that would bring to life the underutilized east end of Navy Pier with an elevated walkway and reflecting pool.
The centennial makeover also includes 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.
A $20 million “legacy gift” from the Polk Bros. Foundation, which bankrolled a new park at the entrance of Navy Pier and other elements of the phase one makeover, is expected to provide momentum for the fundraising campaign ahead.
“This removes the carnival-like, 30-year aesthetic that should have gone a long time ago and replaces it with open green space,” said downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), whose ward includes Navy Pier.
“With all of the compliments this has received, everyone who has been at these meetings and certainly the neighborhood association agrees that Navy Pier is in dire need of an upgrade,” Reilly said. “It wasn’t serving the purpose functionally or aesthetically. These key investments are gonna go a long way toward helping the pier realize its goal of being a year-round venue.”
Reilly noted that the projected five-year increase in attendance — from 9 million to 12 million — would occur over a yearlong period, not simply over the summer months.
It would be accommodated by a “much more robust and retooled trolley system” aimed at getting people to Navy Pier, without driving and clogging local streets, a big bone of contention with Streeterville residents, the alderman said.
“Right now, this is pretty much a seasonal facility. Not much happens once the weather turns,” he said.
Noting that he has spent a lot of time negotiating the fine points of the deal, Reilly said the end product is not only reasonable, but “exciting” for the state’s No. 1 tourist destination.
“It respects the landmark status of the building. Converts it into a year-round use. Removes a lot of the — no offense to Navy Pier — the carnival-like, 30-year-old aesthetic that, frankly should have gone some time ago and replaces it with open green space, more interactivity between the exterior and interior of the facility. And I think it will reach that 12 million goal probably ahead of schedule,” Reilly said.
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) called the latest chapter of Navy Pier’s centennial makeover “fantastic.” He asked Marilynn Gardner, president and CEO of Navy Pier, Inc., how big a boost to attendance she anticipates.
“We hope once the entire vision is fully realized that we would end up generating about 12 million annual guests. And that would be building on our wintertime attendance. Our hope is to level out the season throughout the year,” Gardner said.
“We currently welcome 9 million guests annually. And we anticipate that we will be welcoming close to 12 million once the plan is fully realized in about five years,” she said.
Burnett added, “So another 3 million. That’s a large amount of folks who will be paying for cabs, staying at hotels, buying food. . . . That’s fantastic. This is a win-win for the city and people who live in the city.”
The elevated walkway on the east end of the pier, known as the “Lake Overlook,” is truly the marquee feature. It juts out over Lake Michigan. The 12-foot-wide path includes a shallow pool that designers call a “Lake Mirror.”
Sarah Astheimer, a principal of James Corner Field Operations, landscape architects for the redevelopment of Navy Pier, has called the east end “one of the most important,” but “most underutilized, 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 told the Chicago Plan Commission last month.
“Our design . . . responds to this with a symmetrical and open plan. A new lake room that creates a powerful new connection to its context with an arced, elevated overlook walk and a reflective water feature called the `Lake Mirror.’ 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 taken a ride on the new and bigger Ferris wheel that opened to the public on Memorial Day. The, now-completed Phase One project also includes the Polk Brothers Park and plaza complete with two stages for arts and cultural programming and a south dock makeover with new restaurants and recreation space.