Officials reveal Grant Park renovation plans to public
December 1, 2011

By Amy Rothblatt

Long-awaited designs for renovating north Grant Park finally were unveiled at a recent meeting conducted by Gia Biaggi, director of park planning for the Chicago Park District. The meeting was one of several public gatherings sponsored by the Grant Park Conservancy (GPC) and the Chicago Park District (CPD) over the last 18 months.

The project will transform Grant Park between Randolph and Monroe Streets and from Columbus Drive east to the Cancer Survivors Garden. It grew out of the need to replace the interior of the Monroe Garage, which supports Daley Bicentennial Plaza. With the garage closed, workers have almost completed the interior work. In Phase II, they will repair the garage roof; because of its position below the park and beneath the plaza, they must remove almost 20 acres of park land to complete this phase.

“We decided on a new park design because of this,” said Bob O’Neill, GPC president. “We will begin breaking ground in the fall of 2012 and remove the garage when summer is over. Hopefully, they’ll start doing the park in 2013 and open in the spring of 2015. It’s an enormous project, but to do it right, we can’t do it any faster.”

The park will offer a variety of unusual amenities, to make it attractive to as many people as possible.
The project budget is about $30 million, but O’Neill would like it increased by another $20 million from corporate and private sponsorship.

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, the landscape architecture firm chosen to design the project, strives for environmentally sustainable landforms offering “fluidity.”

Van Valkenburgh, the firm’s principal architect and designer, and his project manager, Paul Seck, have attended all meetings about the park and listened to comments and suggestions.

“We want to check in with the people,” he said. “Grant Park is Chicago’s front yard, and a lot of people are very concerned because of its central location and proximity to Millennium Park,” O’Neill explained. Van Valkenburgh added, “we don’t need to repeat the things that are in Millennium, but we would like to complement them. “People get very confused about how to get to the lake, and we want to find more obvious and interesting ways to get people there, make it more accessible,” O’Neill said. “We are looking to create an innovative and creative park that will be done cost effectively.”

Van Valkenburgh is incorporating paths that “make sense” yet are “whimsical and fun,” he said, noting they would provide a sense of “moving, curving, bending; paths that go through areas that make you want to linger, without noise, to enjoy the quiet of the park,” creating a way to move through it in a curving, non-linear way that “doesn’t rush you. “Lawn areas come together and intersect, bringing you into the park directly, but then they begin to meander on the inside,” he went on. “Landforms and naturalistic planting help achieve this, conducive to curving and gentle paths. We feel that this park needs character, and we would like to give it a sense of irregularity and mystery.”

Park trails will meander to create a more natural feel.
“A great park puts together activities, and we need to make a park that as many people as possible like and can use,” he added. “It has to be comfortable and make everyone feel welcome, especially during seasonal extreme temperatures. We are working on finding ways to make the park interesting in winter.”

One amenity under consideration is a waterfall that would become a wall of ice in winter. Van Walkenburgh explained his philosophy that a park can provide more than a network of paths by introducing rolling landforms that create diverse usage; have naturalistic planting; mitigate noise, wind, and sun for comfort; and offer untraditional play areas for children.

He wants to make “one of the very best playgrounds that America has” for kids in North Grant Park. Besides the traditional swings and play equipment, he plans to create innovative play spaces using green materials and nature to encourage exploration and imagination and add diversity to children’s enjoyment. The firm will fill the park predominantly with green space, water, natural materials, and landforms winding around and flowing naturally through the park.

Sculptures scattered throughout the winding paths will enhance the experience. North Grant Park will be both active and passive.

The active area will allow visitors to interact with the environment, explore nature, and “roll in the grass and play in the snow,” Van Walkenburgh said. The current design includes a climbing wall and ice skating; a circuit of trails will allow people of all ages to wander among trees and engage in imaginative play.

Passive enjoyment will come from benches allowing visitors to rest, observe, and “feel one with nature,” he said. “The intention is to mix it up and give people choices.” Van Valkenburgh noted the park’s urban component, an important feature that will offer cafes, beer gardens, green markets, and places where people of all ages can gather.

One of the landscape architects’ biggest challenges is the impossibility of seeing the lake from the lower part of North Grant Park, especially in the western part. The firm is investigating ways to deal with this.

“When you look up a hill or at the lake from the lower part of North Grant Park, the horizon and the sky blend naturally together, and you have a feeling that the land is boundless and the park is bigger than it really is,” Van Walkenburgh said. “This design, created entirely by nature, is in effect larger than life.” He hopes his firm’s designs will retain these attributes while adding the amenity of being able to see the lake, most likely by raising the park’s elevation.

During the meeting, organizers also addressed replacing the façade at Columbia College’s 618 S. Michigan Ave. building. Architect Sarah Jacobson, who has been working on this project, said the building’s original design had been changed when IBM owned the building in 1955.

She noted that, when renovated, the structure will remain intact but the façade will be gone. After exploring many designs and experimenting digitally with patterns visible from a distance, Jacobson and Columbia have decided to use a repetitive pattern on the façade in the shape of a bird to honor Chicago’s importance as a migratory bird route. To humans, the images will look abstract; to birds, they will appear as birds. “This can be done at a reasonable cost and add a different look to the building and to Michigan Avenue,” Jacobson said.