Plans to revamp Navy Pier

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin takes a look at new plans to revamp Navy Pier. Overall, Kamin argues the plans lack coherence even as they offer a few nice ideas:

That’s what’s missing from the new report: A bold design framework for the future of the 3,300-foot-long pier (above, in its current state), which was envisioned by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, completed in 1916, and remains Chicago’s top tourist attraction, even if it’s not as popular as it used to be.

Drawn up for the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority by the Urban Land Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate developers’ group, the report unveiled Wednesday has a certain urgency because Navy Pier’s annual attendance has fallen to 8 million from a peak of 9 million in 2000.

But the report’s principal recommendations lack flashes of insight about the great public work, which originally consisted of classically-inspired buildings framing freight and passenger sheds. The sheds disappeared as part of the pier’s $225 million makeover, completed in 1995.

My complaints about the space would be a little different and not focus so much on the design. My main issue is that it is primarily a tourist attraction that has little revisit value and is not connected enough to other Chicago attractions like Michigan Avenue or the Chicago River. As a tourist destination, it doesn’t actually offer much to do – the stores are limited, there are limited eating opportunities, attractions like the Ferris Wheel aren’t something you would come back to several times a year, and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre is a great performing space but doesn’t add much to the atmosphere. Additionally, Navy Pier is a bit of a walk from Michigan Avenue which features much more interesting shops and restaurants.

The contrast I would draw with Navy Pier is Millennium Park. The park doesn’t cost anything (outside of some concerts, ice skating, and food) but has attractive elements: interesting design, some great gardens to walk through, and great people-watching opportunities, as people converge from the train stations, State Street, Michigan Avenue, and the lakefront. Most of all, the park is not a mall or amusement park, which Navy Pier can often feel like. Millennium Park feels and operates like a real public space, not a controlled commercial environment.

What might be helpful are some low-cost options for boasting interest. Why not have revolving (and interesting) art displays or themes? Why not have more street performances? Why not work on connecting the Navy Pier streetscape with Michigan Avenue so it doesn’t require a drive to the overpriced Navy Pier garage? Navy Pier needs to offer more unique and cheap features that tourists and others can’t find elsewhere in Chicago.

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