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Navy Pier board picks designer to revamp public spaces

One of the design ideas created by James Corner Field Operations, the firm chosen to develop plan to revamp Navy Pier’s public space.

When it comes to envisioning improvements for Navy Pier, grand ideas get attention but practicality gets a contract.

The board that runs Navy Pier picked James Corner Field Operations on Thursday to oversee a redesign of the pier’s public spaces. Officials hope the work will be part of a reimagining with public and private dollars of the state’s largest tourist attraction.

They said the New York-based Corner firm won the assignment on the strength of its urban work and its willingness to collaborate and accept budget constraints.

“You really get a feeling that we will be a partner” with the firm as designs are fleshed out, said Jim Reilly, chief executive of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns the pier. Reilly said Corner understands the pier’s appeal and its unique place in the city.

“It’s still a working pier and it has an incredible history,” Reilly said.

The Corner firm was selected from five finalists who submitted public works ideas for the pier while outlining how they would approach the potentially $85 million project. It’s original proposal in January lacked some of the fanciful and costly flourishes that other finalists suggested, such as expanding the pier’s reach into the lake or putting a towering ice sculpture in the water.

The firm, founded by designer James Corner, suggested a swimming pool and ice rink on the pier’s east end, beautification of Gateway Park on the west end and changes to the Crystal Garden to make it more family-oriented play space.

There are no guarantees that any of those proposals will happen, but the ideas were offered as examples of the firm’s approach. Ideas from losing finalists also could survive.

Improvements to the public space such as the South Dock are seen as crucial to attracting private investment. Reilly listed the goals: more nightlife, entertainment, restaurants, water features and lighting and expansions of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Chicago Children’s Museum. A hotel also is a possibility.

Terms of the contract with Corner will be negotiated.

Steven Haemmerle, executive vice president of the pier, said it’s expected Corner will be paid less than $5 million out of $10 million that has been set aside for preliminary work. Officials hope to have public improvements done or under way for the pier’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

The contract got the unanimous approval of board members of Navy Pier Inc., a nonprofit that runs the pier.

Members cited Corner’s track record in big cities, where neighborhood and political interests are involved. Among its work is the transformation of New York City’s Highline, a mile-and-a-half abandoned railway site, into a public park.

It also is working on Seattle’s waterfront and is designing a park in London for the Olympics. Corner was in London and not immediately available for comment.

His application lists a team of 16 subcontractors.

The overall budget for the pier work, counting public and private money, is $155 million, but officials acknowledge that number will change drastically as designs are completed and fundraising takes place.

One possible revenue raiser, Reilly said, is corporate naming rights for various attractions. The Metropolitan Pier authority, which controls McCormick Place, has said it could provide $50 million in seed money for the work, christened “Pierscape.”

With state and city money involved, both the mayor and governor provided statements in support of Corner’s designation.

Having a designer of such caliber “working with one of our city’s greatest icons demonstrates that Chicago has the energy and vision to continue to lead on the world stage,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Gov. Pat Quinn said the state has a responsibility to make Navy Pier “a modern, appealing and sustainable attraction.”

Sarah Garvey, chairman of the Navy Pier board, said private fundraising will work in tandem with planning the public improvements. She stressed the importance of the pier’s centennial in 2016.

The year also is important for the pier’s Shakespeare theater. It will include the 400th anniversary of the bard’s death.