July 12--Millennium Park, which turns 10 Wednesday, is the best thing former Mayor Richard M. Daley ever did. But as this month's titillating trial over a controversial contract for the Park Grill shows, the popular park has never fully detached itself from charges of wild overspending. They cling to the spectacle-filled public space like chewed pink bubble gum stuck to the sole of an elegant Manolo Blahnik shoe.
Little matter. Calculate the pluses and minuses, and it's hard to not to conclude that Millennium Park looks even better now than it did when Daley sliced through a red ribbon to officially open it on July 16, 2004. It is a great work of civic art, a robust generator of jobs and construction and the latest demonstration of Chicago's audacious ability to invent the urban future.
Full coverage: See more Millennium Park photos, videos, and stories here
With its glistening Cloud Gate sculpture and raucous Crown Fountain, its oasislike Lurie Garden and festive Pritzker Pavilion, the $490 million, 24.5-acre post-industrial playground is the face Chicago wants to show the world, a dazzling antidote to the gun violence wracking city neighborhoods.
But the park is no Potemkin village or gated theme park. It's a new town square that draws together, if only fleetingly, the residents of a metropolis separated by the fault lines of race and class. It has changed -- and continues to change -- significant swaths of the city around it.
Before the park transformed a surface parking lot and exposed commuter railroad tracks into a magnetic public space built atop those tracks and a multilevel parking garage, tourists rarely ventured to the blocks immediately south of the Michigan Avenue Bridge. Now, with the park luring them, those blocks teem with people -- and billions of dollars in real estate investment that are revitalizing the cityscape and bolstering the tax base.
Towering skyscrapers, like the glass-sheathed Legacy at Millennium Park, borrow the park's name and demonstrate its ability to alter the real estate climate. Buy a condominium unit with views of the park, a 2011 study by researchers from Texas A&M and DePaul universities concluded, and it will cost you an extra 29 percent.
That's just one way to measure the Millennium Park effect.
Outside Chicago, the park has been a target for skeptics who argue it relies too heavily on spectacular objects like The Bean. Yet it's also been praised as a departure from the 19th-century model of parks as nature-inspired refuges from the industrial city's polluted air and packed streets.
Consider the way Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campell characterized Millennium Park in 2011 as he showered disdain on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, a chain of green spaces built atop the tunnels of the "Big Dig" highway project.
"Everybody goes (to Millennium Park), in almost every season, because there's great stuff to do," Campbell observed. "Magical artworks, a delightful cafe, theaters, an outdoor concert venue, a world-class art museum next door ... inventive gardens, an ever-changing pool for wading and running, a bike rental pavilion -- the list of delights seems endless, all packed into an area much smaller than the Greenway. And it's a great place for people-watching because, unlike the Greenway, it's full of people."
Lots of people. Attendance is expected to hit 5 million this year, making Millennium Park Chicago's second-biggest tourist attraction after Navy Pier. In 2005, the park's first full year of operation, it drew about 3 million.
Despite soaring popularity, the park's image is taking another hit in the trial focused on the Park Grill, the restaurant that faces its outdoor skating rink. Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration is asking a Cook County judge to void a contract for the restaurant that it claims shortchanges city taxpayers big-time. City lawyers argue that former Chicago Park District official Laura O'Malley unfairly helped steer the lucrative 2003 deal to run the restaurant to a friend of Daley's with whom she'd had a sexual relationship.
The case is fodder for critics who have disingenuously contrasted the park's $490 million final cost with the $150 million price tag that Daley announced in 1998.
That's like saying that a Ferrari should cost the same as a Ford Fiesta.
The Millennium Park that opened in 2004, four years behind schedule, was a supercharged version of the bland, Beaux-Arts proposal from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill that Daley initially unveiled.
It had more than 50 percent more acreage. And it had eye-popping icons by such world-class talents as Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry (the Pritzker Pavilion), the Indian-born, London-based artist Anish Kapoor (Cloud Gate, nicknamed The Bean) and the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa (the Crown Fountain.)
Without those features, which were backed by $220 million in private donations and inserted into the park after construction was underway, Millennium Park would have none of the magic -- and few of the ripple effects Chicago enjoys today.
The extra $120 million that the city kicked in for the park, bringing its share from $150 million to $270 million, is dwarfed by the economic benefits documented in the 2011 study by Texas A&M and DePaul universities -- among them, nearly $2.45 billion in new condominium, office and hotel construction near the park. And that figure is surely understated because building has surged in the last three years as the recession loosened its grip. Parks and other public works are supposed to spur private investment, and that is exactly what Millennium Park continues to do.
Join the tourists flocking south of the Michigan Avenue Bridge and here's a taste of what you'll see: Scaffolding surrounds portions of the neo-classical office building at 360 N. Michigan Ave., which the Oxford Capital Group is turning into a hotel. In the 200 block of North Michigan, construction is underway on a 42-story apartment tower by developer John Buck. Buck is also working with Virgin Hotels to convert a 1928 office building at 203 N. Wabash Ave. into a hotel expected to open later this year. None of those projects were included in the 2011 report.
The park "has played a pivotal role" in fueling the construction, Buck said. Developers "knew it would be good. But they had no idea it would be so good."
To be sure, some of the building would have happened anyway. But without Millennium Park, the boom "wouldn't necessarily have occurred to the degree and not with the speed" it has, said Gail Lissner, vice president of Appraisal Research Counselors, a Chicago-based company that appraises commercial and residential properties.
That park has improved with age, courtesy of a rigorous upkeep program. According to the 2011 report, Millennium Park spends more than $100,000 per acre annually to keep the park clean and maintain exhibits.
The park's now-mature trees -- elms, honey locusts, maples, pears and sycamores -- define the perimeter of roomlike outdoor spaces in keeping with Grant Park's traditional, Beaux-Arts character. When the park opened, it was vulnerable to criticism that it was a donor-driven collection of striking, but stand-alone, objects. The mature trees provide much-needed connective tissue that frames the sculptures and allows visitors to discover them slowly and subtly.
The Lurie Garden has also become richer with time. Its muscular "shoulder hedge" evokes Carl Sandburg's "City of the Big Shoulders" poem and offers the illusion that it supports the stainless steel "headdress" that crowns the Pritzker Pavilion's band shell. By enclosing the garden, the hedge creates a welcome respite from the boisterous atmosphere of the Crown Fountain and The Bean.
The advance of technology has rendered those objects, initially praised for both their cutting-edge form and interactive character, even more interactive. Planned before the widespread use of camera-equipped smartphones, Millennium Park turned out to be the ultimate camera-ready public space. Its public sculptures all but invite visitors to email favorable images of Chicago around the nation and the world, much as visitors to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 sent postcards of the Ferris wheel and other wonders back home.
It is in Chicago's DNA to build such wonders and to expand upon their legacy.
By raising the standards for public space and proving that cutting-edge design can attract a mass audience, Millennium Park has contributed to bold new plans and makeovers for such high-profile lakefront projects as Navy Pier, Northerly Island and Maggie Daley Park. When it opens next year, just to Millennium Park's east, Maggie Daley Park will include such wow-inducing features as an ice skating path looping through a stand of evergreens.
So pervasive is Millennium Park's influence that it raises the question: Where does that impact end?
Not on Michigan Avenue, where, in anticipation of the real estate boom the park would create, the city in 2002 granted landmark protection to a milelong stretch of historic facades between Randolph Street and 11th Street.
Not below the park, where thousands of Metra commuters enjoy the sleek Millennium Station.
Not at the Art Institute of Chicago, which relocated its Modern Wing to take advantage of the park's crowds.
And not on East Wacker Drive, where a Chinese developer wants to build an 89-story apartment and hotel skyscraper that would be Chicago's third-tallest building. Those plans were announced Wednesday.
The improvised, make-it-up-as-you-go-along process of Millennium Park was anything but exemplary, leaving a legacy of cost overruns and finger-pointing that continues to this day.
But that process also endowed Chicago one of the great urban parks of the early 21st century, a sterling example of how big cities get big things done and how bold investments in the public realm can pay dividends -- aesthetic, cultural and financial -- for decades to come.
Full coverage: See more Millennium Park photos, videos, and stories here
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