At last: Opening Day for Millennium Park

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Above a blighted, sunken site once occupied by railroad tracks and a gravel parking lot, what is arguably Chicago's most expansive outdoor cultural project since the Columbian Exposition of 1893 is finally open.

Millennium Park, which cost more than $475 million and spans 24.5 acres, is quintessential Chicago. This city -- that makes no small plans, that reversed the flow of its own river, that boasts the nation's tallest building, that forever labors to shed its "second city" status -- could never be sated by a run-of-the-mill greensward.

Add to the equation Mayor Richard M. Daley's well-documented affinity for flowering greenery, outdoor recreation, big statements and the physical definition of the urban moment, and the park, destined to become one of Daley's most significant legacies to his city, became a reality.

The much-delayed project, which opens to the public this weekend with a grand and free three-day festival, is anything but typical Chicago open space.

Millennium Park was intended by its public and private benefactors to function as an up-market creative showcase -- an expensive, high-profile, brand-name, art-filled theme park designed as a destination for visitors and area residents. But it also exists so that Chicago's competitive business leaders can make a statement about their city's pre-eminent place in the creative world.

Abandoning an initially modest idea for some new parkland to fill in an eyesore, Daley and his enthusiastic coterie of private benefactors have instead spent several years and millions of dollars packing a cluster of astonishingly high-profile cultural icons inside the compact six city blocks that make up Millennium Park, located to the north of Grant Park and sandwiched between Michigan Avenue and Chicago's lakefront.

"This park," Daley says, "is destined to have a huge impact on this city. "

Clearly, this is not intended to be a place to skateboard or hit a softball. Nor is Millennium Park designed to house the Taste of Chicago and the other major, populist festivals that already bring hordes of people to the downtown lakefront every summer.

A special conservancy with its own board of directors and staff curators, not the more prosaic Chicago Park District, will be in charge of its operation.

"This is a cultural park as opposed to a recreational park," says Edward Uhlir, Millennium Park's project director.

When the locks finally come off the metal fences this weekend, Chicagoans will be officially introduced to an 11,000-seat outdoor concert venue designed with flourishing metallic bows by the internationally acclaimed Frank Gehry; Gehry's snaking, sloping, first-ever bridge and "Cloud Gate," a huge, 110-ton sculpture from Anish Kapoor done up in reflective stainless steel.

Those only are the headliners. There's also a garden designed by world-renowned landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson (who just unveiled the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial in London) and Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa's pair of towering glass edifices, whereupon video projections of regular Chicagoans will appear to be emitting water from their mouths.

Seeing the disparate, large-scale work of so many internationally visible artists of varying media in such close proximity — and on a permanent basis — makes Millennium Park without an obvious extant peer anywhere in the country.

Big-name sponsors

A quilt of corporate sponsorships shows how the cost of the bounty was divided — it's the BP Bridge, Wrigley Square, the Lurie Garden, Bank One Promenade (for now) and the McCormick Tribune Plaza, which houses an ice rink. The Gehry band shell is named the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, after the founder of the Hyatt Hotel chain. The names of those paying the bills are prominently displayed.

Given the name of Millennium Park — initially intended as a temporal celebration but retained despite the progression of the 21st Century — the four-year delay is impossible to hide. Even as it opens to the public, some aspects of the park still remain unfinished, with the Kapoor sculpture not expected to be fully finished until September.

But if the delay is obvious, it still can be redefined. Despite a 2001 Tribune investigation that found poor planning and design problems had led to increased costs, the park's creators — led by Daley — argue that they merely took their time creating an abiding attraction for the ages, rather than promoting and developing an unpopular, temporary boondoggle such as London's disastrous and already defunct Millennium Dome.

"Most Millennium gifts to other cities already have been torn down and forgotten," Daley says. "This is a gift to the City of Chicago that will last." And the park will be, Daley insists, "for everyone."

The story of how Millennium Park finally arrived at its opening is long and complex.

Civic groups have been eyeing the site — an ugly hole in the heart of Chicago's most aesthetically important area — for at least four decades. But they never had much money to do anything about it.

By the 1990s, attempts to do something about the track and parking eyesore — which became known as "the central area" — evoked the notions of Daniel Burnham's The Plan of Chicago. Since Burnham wrote that "the landscaped setting of the Grant Park Group offers opportunities of the highest order" and argued for "the green of trees and the judicious use of parterres," it made sense that the former rail yard be turned into a verdant space.

Planned opening was 2000

By 1998, the so-called Lakefront Millennium Project newsletter touted a plan for a "project" involving a large open public space ("The Great Lawn") with an outdoor stage on the north end "tucked into a hill," and coupled with a 300-seat indoor performance space. The plan also featured a series of terraces and a multimodal transit center located beneath street level. In his letter, Daley referenced an opening date of midsummer 2000.

In fact, Daley knew that any development on the site would need a lot of private money. TIF funds could perhaps be tapped, and the city could use revenue from the parking garage on the site to finance bonds, but that hardly would cover the above-ground development. So he went to work.

"I remember standing with the mayor in the Amoco Building," says John Bryan, the former president and CEO of Sara Lee Corp. and now the chairman of Millennium Park Inc. "He looked out over the site and started talking to me about the idea. I thought it was just conversation."

It was a lot more than that. Bryan has a reputation as a rainmaker. Shortly afterward, Daley made a phone call to Bryan's office.

"The mayor is not the sort of person who just picks up the phone to chat," Bryan recalled in a recent interview. "He said they needed some money to make it into a real park. He mentioned the figure of $30 million. And I said, 'Oh, sure, that doesn't sound very ambitious to me.'"

Meanwhile, Uhlir, the former head of planning at the Park District had announced his retirement. Before he was fully out of the door, Daley asked him to manage the creation of Millennium Park. "He said he'd like me to do this for him," Uhlir recalled. "It's hard to say no to the mayor."

As things turned out, $30 million was a long way off the final mark of more than $475 million. But that's in part because Bryan went to work on the project in a big way, forming a dedicated non-profit organization and calling his friends and asking them to join various executive committees. "I knew that if we had the money, we could spend it," Bryan said. Meanwhile, Uhlir noodled around with the original 1998 design.

Bryan knew that big donors would only give at the necessary level if the finances of the park were clearly separate from the city and if the quality of the designers were palpably world-class. According to Daley, the city essentially has used the TIF funds and bonds issued against the potential revenues of the parking garage on the site to pay for everything below ground, while private benefactors have paid for virtually every major component of the park.

Given those facts, it's hard to make the argument that the park is eating money that could be used elsewhere. The visible items, at least, aren't coming from money that could or would have been earmarked for other public uses.

Skyrocketing costs

But it was the big-money donors who wanted the prestigious names — which accounts at least in part for the mushrooming budgets and the delays.

Take the Gehry pavilion. The Pritzker family, which paid the bill, agreed to the donation only if a world-class architect were involved. An early idea of Cindy Pritzker and others was to get Gehry to do some sculpture for the park, but he demurred. And knowing that Pritzker (a longtime architecture enthusiast) had a good relationship with Gehry, Bryan then decided to fry bigger fish.

"I had visions of Cindy Pritzker being a sponsor of the pavilion and getting Frank Gehry to design it," Bryan said. "Those two things went together."

Pritzker acted as a go-between with Gehry — and also agreed to come up with the cash. "Once you've made a suggestion," Pritzker said in an interview, "you have to be willing to put your money behind it."

And so it went with Millennium Park. As the names and stakes increased in prestige, rich sponsors began to line up behind Bryan, who says he shamelessly appealed to the donors' sense of civic pride and Chicago boosterism.

It all took more time that anyone thought — Gehry, for example, was already booked with other projects for many months after he got the Millennium Park commission. And with the delays came an increase in cost. Nonetheless, those involved argue money wasn't wasted. "It cost what it cost," says Gustafson, who designed the gardens (her first planted work in the United States). "The budget was just about right."

Then there was the matter of the parking garage — the 1998 plan called for a park over the top of an extant garage on the northern part of the site. "The old garage was shored up with timbers," Uhlir says. "The first thing I said was that the garage needed to be totally replaced, and that you didn't want to do that after already building a park"

Thus the garage was done first, which delayed the park even more. Daley argues that the decision to redo the garage and the addition of big-name designers qualifies as a change of plan — not a project going over time and budget.

"The original concept grew," he says. "Had we not been willing to change, this would have just been another thing that got built."

On Friday night, a concert by the Grant Park Orchestra in the state-of-the-art Pritzker Pavilion will open Millennium Park.

Only time will reveal the wisdom of this new signature Chicago attraction. It remains to be seen whether the attractions will survive the elements and human intrusion, whether messy recreational desires will fight with the park's more refined ambitions, whether the park both will spur economic development and gain a place at a top of the city's must-see visitor attractions.

But one thing is sure. No small plans were made. And no small plans were carried out.

Ask Gustafson, who is sought after all over the world, why she competed to work on this difficult site for a garden — the grade rises as mercilessly as the wind whips off the lake — and her response is simple and immediate.

"Chicago is a marvelous city," she says, "and this is a very prestigious park."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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