Whether the Bears stay or go, the future is now for the Museum Campus

Nearly a quarter-century after the campus’s creation, the city is wise to contemplate a major refresh of the site.

SHARE Whether the Bears stay or go, the future is now for the Museum Campus
A new museum campus gateway under DuSable Lake Shore Drive is shown in 1998, when the road was moved and a museum campus was created.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has put together a group to chart the future of the city’s Museum Campus.

Beth A.KeiserAP

Kudos to Mayor Lori Lightfoot for forming a 23-member working group tasked with reimagining the Museum Campus and seeking ways to make the destination a year-round attraction for visitors.

“The Museum Campus is an integral part of Chicago and a huge contributor to our city’s culture and economy,” Lightfoot said in a statement Tuesday. “In order to maximize the benefits of its valuable assets, as well as address larger issues about the campus, recommendations from dedicated and talented community leaders are absolutely necessary.”

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Nearly a quarter-century after the campus’s creation, the city is wise to contemplate a major refresh of the site. Especially now, with the Chicago Bears contemplating leaving Soldier Field when their lease there ends in 2033, the Shedd Aquarium preparing for an eight-year, $500 million rebirth, and the possibility of Lakeside Center being converted into a casino.

Improving an urban design triumph

The park-like 57-acre campus was created in 1998 when a stretch of DuSable Lake Shore Drive that separated the Field Museum and Soldier Field from the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium was moved westward.

With the roadway gone, patrons can easily visit the destinations in the campus — or at least traverse among them. The change also provided more much-needed lakefront green space.

The campus was an urban design triumph at the time, but time has revealed weaknesses that the working committee must now work to solve.

For example, while DuSable Lake Shore Drive was relocated, large parking lots and boulevard-like access roads that were built as part of the 2004 Soldier Field renovation — not to mention the existing parking for McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center — gobble up far too much potential open space.

You can’t get rid of all of it, of course, but a reduction would help.

Friends of the Park Executive Director Juanita Irizarry, a working group member, correctly raised this point.

“One of our biggest priorities is to remind the city that Mayor Daley made a commitment to move the Soldier Field parking lots to the west side of Lake Shore Drive back when the Museum Campus was created, and that commitment was never fulfilled,” she said.

But the most important items for the group will be rethinking Soldier Field and Lakeside Center.

The Bears signed an agreement to buy the 326-acre former Arlington International Racecourse for $197.2 million with an eye toward building a stadium there. The deal could close this year, but the Bears said they are still open to remaining at Soldier Field, if a deal there can be done.

Either way, the stadium’s future could include making it and the land immediately surrounding it suitable for more cultural events and concerts. Months before creating the working group, Lightfoot said she wanted to improve the visitor experience at Soldier Field and increase revenues from the stadium year-round.

“It’s an amazing location for cultural and sports events. Are there things that could continue? Should it be transformed? Should the new part of the stadium be removed and go back to the original? There are so many questions,” Openlands CEO and President Jerry Adelmann, who was also named to the working group, said.

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A renewed Lakeside Center would be an asset to the city.

This editorial board has not weighed in on the proposal to put a casino at Lakeside Center and is not doing so here.

But given the building’s vast spaces, plus its Arie Crown Theater and proximity to Northerly Island, the complex cries out for restoration and new public use of some sort. The working group would do well to examine a range of options for the structure.

Creating a special place

Working group member Jack Lavin, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said a revamp would be a chance to “maximize the economic opportunity of the entire Museum Campus.”

Certainly, the campus should make a buck when it can. But if there is a word of caution in this whole thing, it’s that the working group and the city must resist the urge to see a revamped Museum Campus purely as a revenue generator.

The guidestar should be the creation of a special place where Chicago’s lakefront, art, culture and open space design can be enjoyed by everyone.

That means creating a beautiful space that compliments the museums, stadium and (hopefully) revamped convention center that it neighbors.

It also means improving the Metra and CTA connections so that more people can easily get there without driving.

Make the Museum Campus even better, and people will certainly come. And in this case the city and the working group have enough time to get a refresh right.

The city can do no less than develop a high-quality plan that will help re-energize both the campus and the city.

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