Monday, March 21, 2011

Maybe Pier...

...was what our son used to call the Chicago tourist attraction that sits on a man made peninsula in the lake and is officially known as Navy Pier. Today as discussions are under way about the Pier's future, the term Maybe Pier may have more relevance than ever.

In the eighties, there were several plans afloat to re-develop Navy Pier which sat for the most part unused for decades. Back then in city after city, new developments were built in once moribund historic facilities such as the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, South Street Seaport in New York, and Fanueil Hall in Boston. These projects, successful as they were, pretty much became glorified shopping malls, not all that different from what was found out in the suburbs, except with better views. In Chicago there was a strong movement to buck that trend and combine the requisite shopping-dining experience with cultural and recreational amenities.

That's pretty much what we got and Navy Pier quickly became Chicago's number one tourist destination as well as a very popular spot for locals as well. The Ferris Wheel which pays homage to the original one built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition has become a modern day Chicago icon as has the balloon ride which opened up for business a couple of years ago. Both attractions advertise a feeling of exuberance and joy to the Pier and at least as far as I'm concerned are very welcome additions to the skyline. Navy Pier also has the Shakespeare Theater, one of the city's premier cultural attractions as well as the Smith Museum of Stained Glass and the unfairly maligned Children's Museum.

Yet for all that's right with Navy Pier, something is missing. I can't quite put my finger on it exactly, other than to say that it simply could be so much better. There is a lack of cohesiveness to the place, a bric-a-brac feeling that makes Millennium Park look like the model of taste and restraint.

I'm not alone in this sentiment, a study commissioned by the authority that controls Navy Pier concluded that the Pier has several shortcomings including that it is "claustrophobic", "uninspired" and horror of horrors, "has a 1980s look."

In response to that study, a recent cover story in Time Out Chicago devoted several articles to the Pier and what could be done to improve it. The centerpiece article is titled; 15 ways we'd change Navy Pier. Some of the suggestions are audacious and impractical, Daniel Burnham would have been proud. Most of the suggestions I think would be pretty great if implemented:
  • First things first, let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. The article points out the things we should keep, the Ferris Wheel, Shakespeare Theater of course, the Crystal Gardens and little touches like the "retro coin operated telescopes."
  • "Give the people something original to eat." The Pier is filled with chain food fare and encouraging local entrepreneurs to open up shop and create unique dining experiences would be most welcome.
  • "Open up a Soul [music] club." Here's an underrepresented legacy of this city that could be promoted at NP. Why not?
  • "Please local beer lovers with a brewery and tasting room." In one word, yes.
  • "Assemble a Columbian Exposition-themed amusement park." Not so sure about this one. Now let me get this straight, we blast the place for feeling like the 1980s, but it's OK for it to feel like the 1890s? In the illustration they have the Ferris Wheel surrounded by a lagoon complete with Venetian gondolas. That doesn't exactly evoke the Fair to me. Now if they could somehow bring back Little Egypt, I'm all ears.
  • "Dedicate a streetcar line to usher people to the Pier." Two complete thumbs up from me, transportation to Navy Pier is a huge issue. First it's out of the way, the walk, especially underneath LSD is a bit foreboding, and parking is available but expensive. There are buses that go directly to the front door but a first class transportation system would be absolutely fantastic. The best way to get there now unquestionably is by bike.
  • "Building a floating car silo." I'd have say no on this one, at least as it's conceived in the illustration, along with the "souped-up indoor-outdoor water park on the roof." Navy Pier sits on one of the most advantageous and conspicuous sites in the city. As I mentioned before, the Ferris Wheel and the balloon (when it is suspended in the air) are significant elements of Chicago's skyline. The illustrations in the article make Navy Pier look like a gigantic Habitrail.
  • "Wow kids with an underwater fish-viewing area." One minor silver lining in the ecological disaster of the introduction of zebra mussels into Lake Michigan is the fact that the lake water is now amazingly clear. The fish viewing area would provide a fantastic view of our next ecological disaster, the Asian carp.
  • "Bring in local indie shops." Along with the indie restaurants, absolutely. I do think that the re-development of Navy Pier could have been a little more directed towards retail and if designed well, interesting shops on the Pier, other than the endless chotchkie stands already there, would be a welcome addition.
To see all of TOC's suggestions, go here.

Navy Pier is truly a jewel in our city and designing it to live up to its potential should be on the city's agenda. I'd say that a cohesive design to make sense of all the elements of Navy Pier would go a long way toward improving it. Having engaging aspects throughout the Pier, little bits of the unexpected from beginning to end, choices that encourage people to explore, rather than the jumbled mess much of it is now would make for a far more enjoyable visit, in my humble opinion.

In this case, I seem to be attracted more to the little plans rather than the big ones.

Sorry Mr. Burnham.

1 comment:

Pete said...

Burnham wasn't perfect. He wanted the city center to be at Halsted and Congress, which Daley the First would later have bulldozed for the expressway anyway.