Bob O’Neill, president of the Grant Park Advisory Council, jokes that his usual response to citizens concerned about new construction in the park is this: “Well, they’re actually out there building it right now, but thanks for the public input.”

It’s funny, as Homer Simpson would say, because it’s true. Or nearly. O’Neill is lobbying overtime to build a new Chicago Children’s Museum in Grant Park–the same Grant Park that, a century ago, A. Montgomery Ward fought a long, bruising, ultimately successful battle over. Ward was defending the 1836 mandate to keep Chicago’s lakefront public ground, “a common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever.”

The Children’s Museum is but the latest in a long procession of hustles seeking to circumvent that mandate. It’s looking to replace free access to open land with new construction and stiff admission charges, and Bob O’Neill is doing his part to keep those who don’t think it’s a very good idea safely on the sidelines.

O’Neill is a tireless advocate for Grant Park and a genuinely nice guy, but the way he runs the advisory council’s public meetings is a throwback to a time when most community organizations were little more than appendages of the Democratic machine. His sessions are stacked decks masquerading as public forums. They derail effective dissent.

Consider the case of Queen’s Crossing, the crosswalk linking Buckingham Fountain to the lakefront promenade. In 1995 the city spent over $9 million to restore Congress Plaza to its original Burnham Plan status as a grand pedestrian gateway, framed by Ivan Mestrovic’s majestic twin sculptures the Bowman and the Spearman. The gateway would draw visitors from Michigan Avenue along an axis proceeding to the fountain and then the lake.

But in the fall of 2005, without notice or discussion, the city erected storm fencing to shut down Queen’s Crossing, saying it needed to improve the flow of traffic on Lake Shore Drive. The promenade from Congress Plaza now ends abruptly at a barrier of chained bollards at Lake Shore Drive, beyond which the lake beckons inaccessibly.

At the advisory council meeting O’Neill called soon after the shutdown, O’Neill talked past the outraged. “We want to stay positive,” he said.

In the dog-and-pony show that followed, a young and eager Chicago Department of Transportation engineer dragged out a spectacular design for a bridge over Queen’s Crossing by Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect of the 2,000-foot-high Chicago Spire. It was the same bridge design the city had mothballed several years earlier.

By the city engineer’s estimate, it would take four to five years for the bridge to be constructed and the pedestrian crossing restored. But there was no actual commitment from the city to build the bridge, no new funding source to cover the estimated $30 million or more cost. The proposal was a phantom, but it served O’Neill’s purpose–it derailed dissent. (Lately newly elected 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly has been talking about reopening the crossing again.)

Now O’Neill is working his magic for the CCM’s move from Navy Pier into Grant Park. A massive PR campaign that has to be costing the museum a pretty penny began with the March 2006 hiring of a stage manager, Jim Law, a 16-year City Hall veteran and long-time executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events.

You may already have heard the warm and fuzzy radio spots. “Daddy, how do airplanes fly?” a child asks as an announcer talks about a museum that will be “friendly to the environment” and “let our children’s imaginations soar.” The spot directs listeners to the plans on the museum’s Web site, where the only rendering is from so wide a perspective that the new CCM building almost disappears within several blocks of surrounding parkland. Think Dustin Hoffman’s screen test in Tootsie:

Director: I’d like to make her look a little more attractive. How far can you pull back?

Cameraman: How do you feel about Cleveland?

This bird’s eye view is from so high that even the soaring sails of the Gehry bandshell look flat.

The Web site offers preaddressed e-mail to Alderman Reilly urging him to support the move. You can’t change the text, and Reilly’s address is hidden–if you want to write him with anything besides the CCM party line, you need to find it on your own.

Soon we should be seeing the release of a survey of area residents, which I predict will show overwhelming support for putting the museum in Millennium Park. How do I know this? Well, as an area resident, I was one of those surveyed. The questions offered a choice of opposing points of view: arguments against the museum stated tersely and arguments in favor that overflowed with positive buzz words–“not for profit,” “beautifully designed,” “great museum.”

Wouldn’t the new CCM be a better fit for the museum campus, by the Field, the Shedd, and the Adler? “We had suggested that area to them,” said O’Neill, “to see what their reaction would be, and they weren’t even considering it.” Of course not. Millennium Park is a smash hit, and CCM is looking for a way to tap into the three million people who visit it each year.

First up was the Art Institute of Chicago, with its plans to build a 700-foot bridge designed by architect Renzo Piano that runs from Millennium Park to the museum. (When you get to the end of the bridge, your only real choices will be to visit the museum or make the nearly two-block hike back where you came from.) Art Institute President James Cuno, in a March 2006 talk sponsored by Friends of Downtown, had the calculations at his fingertips. “If 3,000,000 people come to Millennium Park, if 20 percent of those go across the bridge to the museum, that’s 600,000. If half of them come to the museum, that’s 300,000. I think it’s a very conservative estimate.” That 300,000 would be 20 percent of 2006’s 1,441,000 total visitors.

Undoubtedly the Chicago Children’s Museum has made similar calculations and wants to get on the gravy train. The other park attractions are free–the Pritzker bandshell, the Lurie Garden, Cloud Gate, Crown Fountain–but it costs $7 for kids over 12 to get into the Art Institute, and the current fee for adults and children alike to get into CCM is $8.

The new museum alone would impose 100,000 square feet of new construction on the park, and an attached field house, replacing the Daley Bicentennial Field House at 337 E. Randolph, would add another 20,000 square feet. The museum is quick to assert that most of the footage would be below grade, but in a model of the design shown to community groups this summer an astounding amount was not.

There was an above-grade entry pavilion along Randolph Street, and behind it a series of pavilions extending into and soaring above the park, which is a story lower than Randolph. East of the museum was the new field house, tall enough to have a “viewing terrace” looking down on the park.

When the Grant Park Advisory Council held a public meeting on the museum’s move in May, O’Neill presided over it as if it were a personal press conference. He called on every questioner, but his responses often turned into rebuttals several times the length of the original question.

O’Neill desperately wants a new field house. “I believe we are disgraced by the condition of this field house,” he says. “This is not a personal issue. I have gotten complaints ad nauseam for a decade about this building. When it’s raining, it’s leaking. Where people are having birthday parties for their children, and water leaking on the birthday cake.” The CCM has offered to build it for him free of charge. To O’Neill, the offer makes the CCM deal a prime example of the virtues of public/private partnerships at a time when governmental units like the Chicago Park District are often short on funds.

A local resident attending the meeting felt otherwise. “I don’t think the Children’s Museum and the new field house should be talked about in the same breath. This is blackmail. If you don’t say yes to the Children’s Museum, I don’t get a field house.”

“It’s not blackmail,” responded O’Neill. “It’s an example that has been set in the success of a lot of public improvements [such as] those pavilions that are around Buckingham Fountain. There is a balance between commercialism and its impact on the park, both negatively and positively. The most visible is Millennium Park. . . . You’ll notice the BP bridge says BP very tastefully. Yes, that is commercialization. The Jay Pritzker Pavilion says Pritzker on it. Boeing Plaza. McDonald’s skating rink. But it’s done tastefully.”

“The difference between Millennium Park and the Children’s Museum,” said someone else in the audience, “is that I don’t have to pay $8 to go down and enjoy Millennium Park.”

“I’d really like to understand,” someone else challenged O’Neill, “where do you stand in all this? I’m not certain that you are really listening to people.”

“I am listening,” responded O’Neill. “I’m a good talker, but I’m also a good listener. This information will go back to the museum, early. It’s their museum. It’s not mine.”

“Seems to me you’re advocating the Children’s Museum,” countered an audience member. “No,” O’Neill answered. “I don’t make a decision before an audience. I don’t make knee-jerk decisions.”

But on August 20 Crain’s Chicago Business published a letter from O’Neill that began, “The Grant Park Advisory Council has supported the proposed move of the Chicago Children’s Museum from Navy Pier to the north end of Grant Park for almost two years.” O’Neill’s organization, whose board, shared with the Grant Park Conservancy, is a who’s who of corporate and institutional heavy hitters, had made up its mind even before the debate began.

Millennium Park aside, past private-public partnerships in Grant Park have been a mixed bag. According to Lois Wille’s invaluable history of the battles over Chicago’s lakefront, Forever Open, Clear, and Free, the first questionable deal came in 1851. The city, as usual, was broke, and needed a breakwater to protect the homes along Michigan Avenue. Across the street, what was then Lake Park was little more than “marshy rubble.” After railroad lobbyist John Wentworth, a future mayor, argued for the benefits of “jobs for the jobless, lower prices for fruits and vegetables, [and] a saving in property taxes,” the city accepted a deal giving the new Illinois Central Railroad a 300-foot-wide strip of land along the lake from 22nd to Randolph, on which it’d be allowed to build a trestle in exchange for constructing a breakwater and creating landfill that would eventually become the site of structures like the Aon Building. In a short time the lakefront became a tangle of freight yards, depots, and debris. The curse of this deal persists to this day in the open ditch that carries the rails south of Monroe.

By 1890, mail order king A. Montgomery Ward was gazing out the window of his new building at Michigan and Madison, which is today being converted into condominiums. According to Wille, “The view across Michigan, towards the lake, turned his stomach: stables, squatter’s shacks, mountains of ashes and garbage . . . railroad sheds, a firehouse, the litter of one of the circuses that continually moved in and out.”

“Merrick,” Ward exclaimed, “this is a damn shame! Go and do something about it.” Merrick was Ward’s attorney. On October 16, 1890, Ward filed a lawsuit to clean up the lakefront. A battle lasting a dozen years pitted him against just about everyone else, because just about everyone had something they wanted to dump alongside the lake: a new civic center, a power plant, stables. Daniel Burnham wanted to put the Field Museum there, right about where Buckingham Fountain is now. When Sarah Daggett, a Michigan Avenue resident, blocked the building of the Art Institute in the park by refusing to sign her consent, her husband did it for her. Men could do that in those days.

Other businessmen lobbied Ward relentlessly, then shunned him when he wouldn’t yield. The Tribune reviled him, calling him “a human icicle.” It predicted anarchy if Ward were allowed to stop the building of an armory in the park to protect the city from labor agitators. Ward said he’d agree to the Field Museum if there were guarantees no further structures would be erected. His compromise was spurned. It wasn’t until 1912 that his victory was finally secured, and by that time he was an old and broken man.

“I fought for the poor people of Chicago, not the millionaires,” Ward said in the only interview he ever gave to a newspaper, in the Tribune. “Had I known in 1890 how long it would take me to preserve a park for people against their will, I doubt if I would have undertaken it.” After his death in 1913, the Tribune grudgingly acknowledged his contribution, publishing headlines that called him the “lake watchdog” who “won fight to save park” but putting the words “watchdog” and “save” in quotation marks.

Today another set of millionaires is supporting building the Children’s Museum in the park–you can’t put a donor’s wall on a tree. But more people have learned Ward’s lesson. Even the Tribune has come full circle. A September 2 editorial was headlined, “A museum in Grant Park? No.” Alderman Reilly has been holding a series of community meetings, at which he estimates opposition to the museum has been running at about 85 percent. The most recent was this past Monday evening at the field house.

“For neighborhood residents only,” the invitation read. But O’Neill was having none of it. That morning he sent out an e-mail asserting, “Grant Park’s success and international status are at stake. Grant Park is all of Chicago’s park, it is our front yard! It does not belong to any one community but to all of Chicago’s communities.”

Local residents showed up for the meeting and discovered that all but the back rows of the auditorium had been commandeered by museum supporters, many carrying professionally printed signs. A ham-fisted security detail even refused entrance to one of the project’s architects, Ron Krueck. Eventually sound was piped into the hallways.

“This was billed as a neighborhood meeting,” Reilly said when the noise of the crowd subsided. “Tonight you can see around the room, it’s not. . .” Krueck’s partner, Mark Sexton, presented a revised design that moved the project westward, with the new field house abutting Columbus Drive. The multiple pavilions and viewing terrace had disappeared. “Eighty percent of the museum is now dedicated to rooftop gardens,” he said. “There’s terraces that are part of the continuum of the park.”

Remaining was an enormous central courtyard lined by sometimes soaring skylights required to bring daylight down into the museum. Sexton sold them as “sculptured skylights,” bringing to mind the subterfuge that circumvented legal height limits in the park by labeling the metal billows of Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion “sculpture.”

Jim Law dramatically pulled from his pocket a letter from Lois Wille repudiating the Tribune’s editorial opposing the museum. Wille used to run the editorial page, and the editorial had quoted from her book. “I resent the selective use of quotes from my book, ‘Forever Open, Clear, and Free,'” wrote Wille, “to justify the editorial’s conclusions.” (For more on Wille’s repudiation, see Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites, at

Richard Ward was the only person allowed to make a presentation opposing the museum. Ward, the president of the New Eastside Association of Residents, or NEAR (and no relation to the captain of industry), zeroed in on the sections of the old Montgomery Ward court rulings most relevant to the current controversy. In particular, there was an 1897 ruling forbidding the “placing thereon anything . . . to which the public will not be admitted free” and one from 1902 decreeing that the area be held “in trust for the people of the State that they may enjoy . . . freed from the obstruction or interference of private parties.”

If the Children’s Museum project were actually “about” the children, it would be building in the museum campus to give visitors ready access to Grant Park’s other family attractions, and not a mile way. If it were about the children it wouldn’t make them burrow like moles. “I can’t understand why you want to put the children underground,” a resident commented back in May. “They should be outdoors.”

The debate isn’t about the architecture–Krueck and Sexton are among the best Chicago has to offer. It’s not about whether Grant Park is a park for the neighborhood or the city. It’s only tangentially about parking, pollution, and congestion. The debate comes down to this: are we still committed to open land? Consider the history of just the last five years–the Harris Theatre, the Pritzker Pavilion, the Art Institute bridge, and now the Chicago Children’s Museum. If Wille doesn’t think more parkland will continued to be gobbled up, she’s lost the tough reporter’s instincts that made her book such a marvel.

Take it from Daniel Burnham. Even at a century’s distance, writing in his 1909 Plan of Chicago, he said it best:

“Both the water front and the near-by woodlands should be brought within easy reach of all the people, and especially of the wage-earners. Natural scenery furnishes the contrasting element to the artificiality of the city. All of us should often run away from the works of men’s hands and back into the wilds, where mind and body are restored to a normal condition, and we are enabled to take up the burden of life in our crowded streets and endless stretches of buildings with renewed vigor and hopefulness.”