Chicago as “ideal venue” for sailing competition

Chicago has plenty of sports events and will soon be the first freshwater host for the America’s Cup World Series:

The event organizers have marketed the Chicago round of the America’s Cup under the tagline “the Windy City is made for this.” While Chicago received its Windy City moniker from its long-winded politicians, the venue is nonetheless expected to have the waterfront breeze necessary for an exciting regatta. Even moderate wind pressure will allow the series’ fleet of high-tech carbon fiber catamarans — the yachting equivalent of Formula 1 race cars — to raise onto their hydrofoils and achieve speeds upwards of 40 knots (roughly 46 miles per hour). Because the racecourse is located entirely within the confines of Chicago’s protective breakwater, safety concerns over rough water are also eliminated.

Course conditions aside, perhaps Chicago’s greatest advantage for hosting such an event is the city’s uninterrupted shoreline. While the constant invocation of Chicago’s master planner Daniel Burnham has become somewhat of cliche these days, the America’s Cup can certainly thank his Plan for Chicago for allowing the city’s lakefront to develop as publicly-accessible recreational space rather than commercial and industrial wharfage.

Burnham might not have envisioned this, particularly with the city’s emphasis on industry and a lakefront and river banks that were covered with rails and shipping facilities in the early years. On the other hand, what took so long to move the event to a freshwater location that offers (1) a protected harbor and (2) a world-class city?

 

Fighting to protect Chicago’s parks from mini-banks, tea stores, and the Lucas Museum

Curbed Chicago sets up the likely coming battle over using public space for the Lucas Museum:

Since late Spring, a small “pop-up bank” operated by PNC Bank has sat in Grant Park. It’s a bright orange and blue shipping container with doors and windows and an ATM. The park district earns $120,000 annually from the small structure, but many folks are not happy with its location in the park. DNAInfo has reports of numerous complaints about the very idea of a bank opening “It seems to go against the nature of the park itself,” a citizen tells DNAInfo.

The Park District is okay with it, obviously, in part because of the payola but also because, according to them, it’s not a permanent structure. In their mind, it’s a temporary vendor like you might find several dozen of in the park during Taste of Chicago. But is it the same? And where are the limits? What if Starbucks wants to open a mini-cafe right next to the PNC to capture the millions of visitors Grant Park will receive this summer? Why wouldn’t they?…

And consider Connors Park, to the north of downtown a few blocks from John Hancock tower. The squat little park is now home to an Argo Tea pavilion which just celebrated its one year anniversary of the location. Initially there was confusion about whether the park was still a park, and if it was okay to sit and enjoy the park without buying a tea. At a celebration for the one year anniversary, staff told us that with recent changes to the signage that confusion has dissipated and that neighbors know they’re welcome…

But the fact that these two issues are even issues at all speaks to the city’s constant vigilance against abuse of the parks, and it explains why despite being a seeming “slam dunk,” the Soldier Field parking lot location chosen for the Lucas Museum won’t come without a fight. This isn’t a quarter-block tea house or a 160 square-foot mini-bank, it’s a massive, multi-million-dollar development that has already captured the attention of the nation. As Chicagoist puts it, The Debate Over The Lucas Museum Has Only Started.

There are two levels to this:

1. What seems like an increased interest in many cities in ensuring that public spaces stay public. What can happen in these parks? Is there enough public space as opposed to private space masquerading as public space?

2. The special circumstances in Chicago that suggest the land near the lake needs to remain for public use. All sorts of ideas can pop up for a lakefront – I was reminded again recently about the older Mayor Daley’s suggestion that Chicago should build a major airport out in Lake Michigan – so having these guidelines has been a big boon. Yet, it is hard for a city that is chasing elite status (perhaps due to its own insecurity) to turn down a figure like George Lucas in such a location. Additionally, such a battle could give opponents of Rahm Emanuel an excuse to pick a battle.

Maybe all this represents one of the major trade-offs in today’s world: just how much do want corporate interests or the interests of powerful people overrule the rights of others? Constructing a museum like this isn’t the end of the world for Chicago but it may seem like another event in a long line of concessions to growth machines.

Does Chicago gain anything by Jimmy Fallon taking a polar plunge in Lake Michigan?

New Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon was in Chicago this past weekend participating in a polar plunge. Does Chicago gain anything by this?

Fallon detailed his experience at Chicago’s Polar Plunge during Monday night’s show, a day after he dipped into icy Lake Michigan.

“I’m never doing that again,” Fallon said.

Fallon said Chicago “didn’t let me fool around” when it came to taking up Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s challenge to take the plunge, which benefits Special Olympics Chicago. The event drew a record number of people.

“I go in, and I hear you’re only supposed to go up to your knees,” he said, recalling running into the lake. “I just plunged back, I went under and a couple bubbles came out and I froze. I just stand up and I took my hat off and my hair turned to icicles, and I heard bagpipes. This is how I went. I thought this was it, I thought it was the end.”

Fallon also shared a gift he received from Emanuel, which declares March 2014 “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon Month” in Chicago.

The biggest winner here appears to be the Special Olympics since people donate to participate. Plus, Rahm Emanuel participated because kids read over 2 million books for a Chicago Public Library summer program – reading is good.

But, wasn’t this primarily a publicity stunt for Emanuel as well as Fallon? Emanuel wins by being an active mayor. As Fallon notes in his retelling and shows in a picture, Rahm looks pretty good coming out of the water. Events like this burnish his image as a mayor who gets things done (past Chicago mayors have made similar claims). He helps kids read and cares about others. It doesn’t hurt that a new CNN show “Chicagoland” features him as mayor. Fallon is a new host, replacing Jay Leno. While he takes time out of his schedule to come to Chicago, it is good publicity as he is involved with a charitable cause and is getting out of the New York/Los Angeles bubble that all late night TV shows live in. Maybe the clincher here is Emanuel giving Fallon a resolution saying March is “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon Month in Chicago.” Does this mean much of anything?

I’m not sure this all contributes much to Chicago. It suggests some people are willing to donate to Special Olympics – they had over 3,200 participants this year, no doubt boosted by Emanuel and Fallon’s presence. Chicago is a charitable city or a star-struck city? The polar plunge highlights the weather in Chicago, particularly in a season nearing record ice cover on Lake Michigan. On the whole, Chicagoans like to put on an exterior of tough people who can survive the weather, particularly when interacting with people from other places, but there is plenty of grumbling. But, is a polar plunge likely to bring in new tourists or help companies decide to move to Chicago?

(I realize this might be a grumpy take on a lighthearted event with some human interest appeal. However, this event got a lot of attention beforehand and afterwards and I wanted to think about how Chicago makes out in the whole situation.)

Considering how to better connect Chicago’s “Cultural Mile”

Chicago Tribune arts critic Chris Jones suggests Chicago’s “cultural mile” is not connected well:

Like many such districts, congressional and otherwise, the Chicago Cultural Mile is an inherently artificial entity — Chicago self-evidently has many a cultural mile — designed to promote specific business and nonprofit interests and, of course, designed not to impinge on the jurisdiction of others. The reason for the weird turns is to link such big lakefront museums as the Field Museum of Natural History in the “mile” along with such Michigan Avenue anchors as the Art Institute, the Spertus center and Millennium Park. John W. McCarter Jr., the former president of the Field, joined the board of the nonprofit Chicago Cultural Mile Association last week along with Frank P. Novel of Metropolitan Capital Bank & Trust. The association, a hitherto snoozey but apparently growing nonprofit, also announced the hiring of its first full-time executive director, Sharene Shariatzadeh.

Let’s stipulate that the weird trajectory of the Chicago Cultural Mile is indicative of a problem in cultural Chicago, which McCarter knows as well as anyone: the continued lack of a graceful, logical curve (be it path, rail or road) to get visitors from Michigan Avenue to the steps of the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium in a way that does not confound the visitors. Some variation of a graceful curve — as distinct from a counter-intuitive, traffic-dodging series of right-angled turns on streets with a surfeit of concrete — is needed. There are many reasons for the current financial duress at the Field, but one under-acknowledged factor is the renovation of Soldier Field, which made the museum seem more of its own island, far more distant, far harder to reach, if only in people’s heads.

But that’s not a reason for the Cultural Mile to leave Michigan Avenue.

Motor Row, its natural destination, sits right next to the McCormick Place convention center, a crucial economic generator that was built without an obvious emotional link to its city — a disdain for urban context that extracts a heavy price. Fixing up Motor Row is the best way to change that. As the Tribune reported last fall, things are already happening: The Seattle-based food-circus hybrid known as Teatro ZinZanni is eyeing the ‘hood for its long-anticipated Chicago branch. The band Cheap Trick is planning a venue and museum. There is talk of hotels and restaurants. A nearby stop on the Green Line is coming.

Jones is suggesting there are three major issues at stake here:

1. The first issue is that there is not a coherent physical connection between these spaces. They exist in proximity to each other but there is not public space that would encourage visitors to travel between them. This is an urban planning issue.

2. The second issue is marketing and selling this stretch as a coherent grouping. Even without a good layout, how many visitors to Chicago know this grouping exists? While the northern end of Michigan Avenue, north of the Chicago River, is well known and visited, this area could use more promotion.

3. A third concern is that this cultural mile could be still expanded to include interesting existing places. As Jones notes, McCormick Place doesn’t really interact with the nearby area even as it attracts thousands of visitors so a nearby site that would attract visitors could be very lucrative and useful.

As someone who has visited this stretch numerous times, I would add another caveat. To get from Michigan Avenue to the museum campus (Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium), the most direct route is to cut southeast from the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street through Millennium Park and Grant Park and over to Lake Michigan. This route takes advantage of one of Chicago’s great features: its parks along the lake. However, cutting through the park, getting away from the traffic, and enjoying the nature and different energy of the parks means that I miss out on what is going on along Michigan Avenue. If the city wants more people to follow Michigan Avenue south, does this necessarily mean diverting people away from the parks?

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.