Courtesy: Studio Gang Architects

The city has big plans for its lake front

Chicagoans often refer to the Lake Michigan waterfront as their front yard, and there's little question the mostly open stretch of public space is integral to the city's personality. For starters, the best way to see the city – parks, gardens, beaches, and museums, sporting and convention facilities and that stunning skyline – is a bike ride up the 18-mile lakefront trail, from the University of Chicago to Hollywood Beach.

President Barack Obama celebrated his 2008 election night victory in Millennium Park, wedged between Michigan Avenue and the lake. Navy Pier, a few blocks north, is the most popular tourist attraction in Illinois. In between, the city was born when trader Jean Baptiste Point du Sable built a farm in the 1780s.

Just over a century later, Chicago beat out New York, D.C. and St Louis to host the World Columbian Exposition along its South Side lakefront, in celebration of the 400-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival. Organized by Daniel Burnham and landscaped by Fredrick Law Omsted, the Chicago World's Fair opened in 1893 and attracted 27 million people in six months.

Burnham went on to lay out much of the city's central lakefront area as part of his 1909 Plan of Chicago, including the original Navy Pier, built in 1916. The waterfront area often seemed under-appreciated during the latter half of the 20th century, as there were few major events or openings besides the annual Taste of Chicago festival in Grant Park and the disappointing Navy Pier makeover in 1995.

Then came Millennium Park. A keystone project of the Richard M. Daley era, the park opened in 2004 amidst considerable controversy and costs hitting $450 million. But it quickly attracted droves of locals and visitors alike. They wandered the gorgeous, green grounds, marveled at Anish Kapoor's mirrored stainless steel "Cloudgate" ("The Bean," to locals), and took in often-free performances at the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion.

It's only the beginning. Several major projects remain on the city's lakefront docket, aiming to complete the makeover that began nearly a decade ago and create an unbroken, 3-mile stretch of green jewels. Up first is a do-over for Navy Pier. Remade just a decade and a half ago for $225 million, the current version is widely seen as a pavement-heavy, retail-dominated tourist trap.

The new scheme, shaped by the pier's owners and Gensler design, envisions new green spaces, sculptures and pools to go along with a redesign of the shopping arcade and family pavilion. A design competition is underway. Several favorites – including Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and local architect and recent MacArthur “genius” winner Jeanne Gang – have already been eliminated.

The finalists, announced a couple months ago, include James Corner, designer of the High Line, the Danish firm BIG, and Chicago up-and-comer UrbanLab, which won several awards for its visionary Growing Water proposal a couple years ago.

The winning design is to be announced in mid-February, after a public viewing period of the finalists' proposals, starting February 2. The project, which is scheduled for completion for the pier's 100th anniversary, is budgeted around $200 million.

Just west of the pier, the Navy Pier Flyover is set to begin construction this year at a cost of $50 million. An elevated overpass for bikers and pedestrians, the flyover will increase safety and reduce the bottleneck on the busiest section of the lakefront trail, near Grand Avenue and Lake Shore Drive. Plans also include ramps and pathways leading to the pier itself and nearby DuSable Park.

A new section of Grant Park is also in the offing. New York architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates has laid out a detailed plan for the $30 million remaking of the park's north end, expected to begin this fall. It includes a climbing mountain, a skating ribbon, rather than a rink, and a handful of meandering trails, green spaces and sculptures. The work should be completed in 2015.

Courtesy: Studio Gang Architects

One project that won't be done by 2015, or anytime soon, is Northerly Island. For decades, the south end of the island – actually a peninsula linked to the city by a spit of land and built as part of the Plan of Chicago – was home to Meigs Field, a single airstrip used by commuters and VIPs. That is until 2003, when then-Mayor Daley famously ordered the landing strip destroyed with a bulldozer in the middle of the night, arguing that it could be used by terrorists.

Ever since, locals have wondered how to use the 91-acre island. The leading candidate is a bold, brilliant park and lagoon design by Gang's firm, Studio Gang, and JJR, a landscape architecture firm, which has been given a thumbs-up from the Chicago Park District. The "framework plan" (which is little more than a blueprint) involves a concert pavilion that resembles a grassy hill, wetlands for migrating birds and a chain of reefs that would protect a swimming and kayaking lagoon. The proposal deftly embraces both nature and science, in a nod to the Adler Planetarium on the island's north end and the nearby Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum.

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