Details of plans to rehab and develop Navy Pier hit the pages of the downtown dailies last May with an explosion of optimism and good cheer.
“Navy Pier developers plan new symbol of Chicago,” proclaimed a headline in the Tribune. The stories that followed gushed over the endeavor, which proposed an exposition hall, museums, theaters, retail shops, fountains, ice-skating rinks, restaurants, and parking.
In their rush to spread the good news, the developers and their journalistic boosters almost overlooked one small detail: the neighborhood.
“I read all of the articles and I had to wonder: What about us? Have we disappeared?” says Ann Peterson, a resident of Lake Point Tower, the 79-story condominium high rise at Grand Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, just a few hundred feet west of Navy Pier. “They never said a word about the fact that this is a residential area. It was as though Navy Pier was attached to nothing, like it sat out on a deserted island.” The fact is there are thousands of residents living within easy walking distance of the pier who oppose the current development plan.
Lake Point Tower residents are the most active. They’ve hired Scot Hodes, a politically well-connected downtown lawyer, to represent them. They’ve enlisted the assistance of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, which has a long track record of battling development plans. And they’re branching out, recruiting residents from other outer-drive high rises to their cause.
“I respect the residents of Streeterville,” says John Schmidt, chairman of the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority, the city/state body overseeing development of Navy Pier and McCormick Place. “I plan to adhere to their concerns, and I have no reason to believe they won’t be completely reasonable.”
“Mr. Schmidt has been very gracious to us,” responds Peterson.
But behind the kind words is a steely resolve. Schmidt and Mayor Daley endorse the development plan and the residents don’t–which could lead to an old-fashioned urban-renewal battle, an upscale rendition of the fight that preceded the trampling of south Armour Square for a new White Sox ballpark.
“This plan in its current state would be a serious detriment to the neighborhood,” says George Sikokis, a SOAR board member. “The authority may be underestimating how much residents in Streeterville oppose it. If push came to shove, I wouldn’t be surprised if this matter was settled in the courts.”
There probably would have been no tussle had the pier expansion plan emerged two and a half decades ago. In those days, the area–roughly bounded on the west and east by Michigan Avenue and the lake and on the south and north by the Chicago River and Grand Avenue–consisted mostly of deserted warehouses and railroad tracks.
Lake Point Tower was completed in 1968, followed by at least a dozen more buildings, erected for the steady stream of empty nesters and young professionals returning to the city. “To north and south of us we have at least six new high rises with 1700 units in them,” says Peterson. “With the new construction come more cars, traffic, noise, and pollution.”
And things can only get worse with the completion of City Front Center, a residential-commercial development that will add at least 2,000 new apartment and condominium units to the land southwest of Lake Shore Drive and Grand Avenue. The city, eager to encourage any and all construction it can, approved this project even though all evidence suggests the area already is overbuilt.
“The biggest problem is traffic,” says Peterson. “The only entrances to the drive are at Grand and Illinois. It’s already gridlock on these entrances at many times during the day. Imagine what will happen if we add 2,000 more cars.”
Worse yet, the Chicago Park District plans to build a 500-boat marina just south of Lake Point Tower near Monroe Harbor.
“Where are those boaters going to park their cars? That’s what I want to know,” says Peterson. “And what about the added noise and pollution of having all those boats? My point is that there is so much building but almost no planning. No one seems to know when or how to stop.”
In the midst of all this other construction, city officials have pushed ahead with plans to develop Navy Pier.
That it has needed rehabilitation for many years is beyond doubt. Battered by high winds and waves and neglected for years, it was until recently in danger of falling into the lake.
In 1988 former mayor Eugene Sawyer named Hodes and 24 other civic leaders to the Navy Pier Development Authority and charged them with the task of devising some way to salvage the pier. This was the second such organization: Mayor Washington had named a Navy Pier Task Force in 1984.
Then, in April 1989, Daley was elected mayor. Soon after that, unbeknownst to Hodes and other authority members, Daley and Governor Thompson began secret talks about the pier’s future. The result was the creation of a new authority, chaired by Schmidt and charged with control over the development of Navy Pier and McCormick Place.
The new authority was approved by state legislators last July, in the waning hours of the 1989 session. Suddenly, Hodes and his cohorts– as well as the old McCormick Place board–were unceremoniously dumped. The new authority was empowered with $150 million in state funds to rebuild the pier (Hodes estimates that substructure repairs alone would cost $90 million). Almost immediately they began letting contracts to begin necessary repairs.
“It was a good deal for the city,” says Hodes. “The city on its own didn’t have the money to rebuild the pier. On the other hand, the way the deal was cut left a bittersweet taste. We weren’t told about what was going to happen. We read about it in the papers like everyone else.”
The deal also stirred resentment among black politicians and activists. Thompson had never been so generous with state funds when Washington or Sawyer was mayor. Indeed, the governor engaged Washington in a petty, time-consuming, and expensive squabble over who would control the McCormick Place board. Now Thompson was, in effect, financing an important piece of Daley’s 1991 reelection campaign.
The McCormick Place expansion–including construction of a domed football stadium–requires millions of dollars that the state legislature has not yet approved. But the Navy Pier project seems well on its way. No specific plans have been drawn, although on May 17 the authority released a “concept plan”–the document that got all the press coverage and incensed the locals.
“They say they’re borrowing $150 million to develop the pier,” says Peterson. “But let’s be realistic: the way cost overruns go, you and I know that will translate into $200 or $300 million. They say the money will come from taxes on the sale of cigarettes and computer software. But if software and cigarette sales subside, they’ll have to repay the bonds by raiding the general tax coffers. Should we be spending this kind of money on developing a large shopping center on Navy Pier when we have so many other needs–like funding our schools?”
At the moment, it’s unclear who has the upper hand in this fight. The authority can expect the support of the Tribune, whose spirited backing of urban renewal efforts–no matter how poorly conceived they are–has never wavered. Most likely, proponents of the development will tar residents as “elitists” or “extremists” who are selfishly preventing the rest of Chicago from enjoying a good thing. And backers will probably attempt to divide Streeterville into two camps.
“The residents of Lake Point Tower are a special case,” says Schmidt. “They have a particular interest that is unique. Beyond that, you are talking about the broader Streeterville area. I don’t think for any of these groups there is anything in the plan that is disturbing.”
Schmidt says he thinks developers should consider the concerns of Lake Point Tower residents. “On the other hand, you can’t allow 300 people–or however many residents live there–to dictate to the city and state use of a public facility like Navy Pier.”
Schmidt’s estimate is a little on the conservative side; there are 879 units in Lake Point Tower. Nevertheless, his tactic may be working. Lake Point Tower residents and their Streeterville neighbors already are a tad defensive.
“We are not antidevelopment,” says Peterson. “Without development there would be no Lake Point Tower, and I would not live here. But I’m a realist. Let’s complement Navy Pier. Let’s rehab it. Let’s make it a beautiful park. But let’s also realize our limits.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.