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Two Big Public Space Makeovers for Chicago

Two Big Public Space Makeovers for Chicago
Courtesy: James Corner Field Operations

Chicago is set to transform a derelict elevated rail line that cuts across its North Side and an over-commercialized, showpiece tourist attraction on the lakefront into two of the city's most appealing public spaces.

The Bloomingdale Trail and Park and the makeover for Navy Pier, expected to cost a combined $185 million, both took major steps forward last week. After a year-long competition, a team led by New York-based James Corner Field Operations won the commission to redesign Navy Pier, the state's most popular tourist site, receiving unanimous approval from the pier's governing board.


The plan from above.

The firm's most high-profile creation to date is New York City's High Line, an abandoned stretch of elevated railway transformed into a stunning park. In December, James Corner won the competition to design Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, alongside the primary venue for the 2012 Summer Games in London.

The challenge is to shed the 3,000-foot-long pier's kitschy image without a wholesale reconstruction. Pier attendance has fallen slightly over the last decade, as visitors have flocked to Millennium Park, a half-mile away.

The 17-member team includes New York-based nArchitects, lighting artist Leo Villareal, and French botanist Patrick Blanc, known primarily for his vertical gardens. Of the remaining group of landscape architects, water and real estate consultants and graphic designers, four are from Chicago, including designer Bruce Mau, whose firm is based in Toronto but lives just north of the city.


Gardens at the Pier.

The makeover, which is likely to undergo significant alterations before construction begins, is expected to cost about $85 million. Initial designs seek to create a sequence of appealing outdoor spaces along the promenade, including tilted lawns for recreation, a fountain that could spout jets, mist or a reflective sheet of water, and hanging gardens inside the pier's Crystal Gardens pavilion. The plan also adds a swimming pool with a sand beach and an amphitheater that would slope down to Lake Michigan level on the east end of the pier, with cantilevered overlooks offering views back to the city.

Navy Pier originally opened in 1916 and is expected to be remade in time for its centennial celebration. Chicago architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham devised the pier as part of his 1910 Plan of Chicago. His vision, according to Corner, was in part about "the creation of settings or stages, where people can come into close proximity with one another, interact with one another... in the context here of being out on the lake."


The pier at night.

Corner's previous project, New York's High Line, cost $115 million, draws millions of annual visitors and has attracted more than $2 billion of private investment to the surrounding area, creating jobs and sparking economic activity.

That's what Rahm Emanuel is envisioning for the Bloomingdale Trail and Park. “We have all read about what the High Line has done for New York economically," he said at a press conference last week. "I hope this has the same impact.”


Bloomingdale Trail and Park.

Emanuel said initial funding had come together for the $100 million project, which is expected to begin construction later this year and be completed by 2014. Designed by Arup, Ross Barney Architects and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the new park will have benches and foliage on either side of a two-way path.

It looks in renderings much like New York City's High Line, but will be nearly twice as long and with gentle curves and dips. It will also allow bike traffic and include several green space access points at ground level.

Besides offering expansive views across several Chicago neighborhoods, the new park will improve local transport links. The multi-use trail will connect the west side to areas near the lake and the Loop, and the anchor parks will link the trail to L train stations and major bus stops.

The Chicago & Pacific Railroad originally built this 2.65-mile stretch of rail line at ground level in 1872. After a series of accidents involving pedestrians, the tracks were elevated about a century ago, but have been out of use since the mid-1990s. Within a couple years, the determined and the curious will no longer be forced to slip through fences to use the space and enjoy the view.

Navy Pier Images courtesy James Corner Field Operations

David Lepeska writes about urban issues and the environment for The New York Times, Monocle, and other publications. He lives in Chicago. All posts »

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