Millennium Park: an example of how growth machines work

Within a story about whether Chicago will be able to move forward with large development projects in the next few years, a historian describes how Millennium Park, a significant undertaking, came about:

Indeed, as Chicago ponders its future, it may be useful to view Millennium Park not as a triumph to be repeated, but as a shining exception, one that occurred only because the stars aligned and Daley had created order in Chicago’s turbulent political universe.

After years of fruitless talk, the story goes, the park got its start in 1997, when the mayor peered down from his dentist’s office along Michigan Avenue and decided to turn that dusty railroad yard in Grant Park’s northwest corner into an urban showcase.

By then, Daley had been mayor for eight years and had consolidated his grip on power. Key figures in the park’s creation, including major donors like the Pritzker and Crown families, were “in many ways indebted to, dependent upon and allied with the mayor,” Gilfoyle said. They wanted to please Daley, he explained, partly because their real estate and other holdings might benefit from future city action.

All roads, in other words, led to Daley. And the economic winds were at his back. The late 1990s dot-com boom gave the park’s chief fundraiser, former Sara Lee Corp. CEO John Bryan, enormous wealth to tap. Without it, Gilfoyle said, the 6-year-old park might never have happened.

Today, with such favorable conditions a distant memory, Chicago’s builders are scrambling to find new paths to get things done. One is to push projects ahead step by step rather than in a single, expensive rush, as at Millennium Park.

This sounds like a classic description of growth machine development: the mayor wants something to get done, major donors and partners are sought and found, and a large and impressive park is able to be built on a spot that had been an industrial location/blighted site for years.

This is an interesting example considering the context of the rest of the story: Chicago will have a new mayor (with less consolidated power) and also is facing significant budget issues. Growth machine politics may not be possible at least with the new mayor for a while though other power brokers could emerge. Growth machines are also more limited when money from businesses and local governments is scarce.

Another question one could ask after reading this story: how unusual was it for both Mayor Daleys to undertake so many significant projects? Around Chicago, they are known for having significant building legacies. Are there mayors in other major cities with similar records or are they truly unusual?

2 thoughts on “Millennium Park: an example of how growth machines work

  1. Pingback: On the failure of the High Line | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs #6: local government, local control | Legally Sociable

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