The city of Chicago’s great “front lawn” has been a work in progress for over 100 years. From swamp to dumping ground to parade ground to playground, it has long been a great urban space that the city almost… but not quite… figured out how to embrace.
The latest piece of this puzzle being worked on is the southwest corner. We’re talking about an are north of Roosevelt Road, and west of Columbus Drive. Mostly what’s there now is Illinois Central railroad tracks, a great big lawn, and a sprawling sculpture called Agora.
This area was actually zoned for a residential skyscraper. But the owner, who is also the developer of Central Station, gave the land to the city to complete Grant Park’s quadrangle. Now the question is — what to do with it?
The obvious answer is to deck over the railroad track and build another Disneyfied fantasy park like the one up at Randolph and Michigan Avenue. But that means money. And is it really the best use of that space?
A public meeting was held last week to gather ideas about what the park should — and shouldn’t — be. Not surprisingly, the crowd was mostly elderly, and mostly interested in seeing the area used as a traditional park. By “traditional” we mean wide lawns with occasional groves of trees. They see it as the only natural use of a park, and the only way to bring nature in the city.
There were dissenters in the crowd, and one of them very astutely pointed out that there is absolutely nothing natural about lawns and manicured groves of trees. In fact, the traditional park landscape is about as far from nature as one can get without actually laying asphalt.
Still, the notion persisted that this corner of Grant Park should be much like the rest of it — open lawn with the occasional alley of trees.
This is a real shame, because the two firms that are working on the project presented some really imaginative proposals. Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture and EDAW|AECOM are the two finalists chosen to rehab the space. They showed some magnificent examples of public spaces from Paris to Barcelona to Croatia. They talked about ways to use rainwater to power fountains, plants to clean storm water runoff, solar cells to illuminate the walkways, and the power of human feet to generate electricity. It’s all very fascinating stuff. The stated goal is to not just make the park energy neutral, but to actually have the park create more energy than it uses, and leave the surrounding air and water cleaner than it was before.
While it’s nice to have a park as a showcase, the overwhelming sentiment on all sides is that this shouldn’t be another Millennium Park. Millennium Park has done great things for the city, its profile, and its finances. But the new (Insert Corporate Sponsor Name Here) Park at the corner of Michigan and Roosevelt shouldn’t be for tourists — it should be for the locals.
To that end, there was lots of talk about bright, but subtle illumination at night that would draw people from the neighborhood into the park. There was also a call for some kind of activity that would allow this to be a year-round park. Maybe some kind of skating facility that would link to Monroe Harbor. Or a sledding hill. Or maybe a cafe or other property that would draw people in year-round. Also seen as important is seating. One jogger noted that there are virtually no places to sit south of Balbo Drive.
Everyone seemed appreciative of a slide showing the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris where 5,000 chairs are scattered throughout the park for people to re-arrange and enjoy at a whim. Interestingly, though, the slides showed a very woodsy portion of the park. We’ve been there, and it’s mostly lawns and parade ground, and all those chairs are not very welcoming on a hot Gallic afternoon.
Speaking of Paris, and there was much speaking of Paris that night, there is apparently a park somewhere in the city that have the same problem as Grant Park — a giant rail line cleaved through the middle. That unnamed park found a solution — the gravel rail beds have been replaced with a carpet of blooming flowers that change patterns during the summer. Since the trains easily clear the plants, the two manage to coexist in a single space, and what was once an ugly scar has been turned into a floral work of art. It’s certainly compelling, especially considering Maggie Daley’s fascination with flowers and the great job the city does with landscaping certain areas. The idea was actually proposed by the same woman who designed Millennium Park’s Lurie Garden.
Though the park plan is still in its early stages, expect progress to be rapid. The goal is to have a plan ready to present to the International Olympic Committee when it comes to inspect our fair city in April, 2009. Grant Park is a key to Chicago’s proposed Olympic experience, and this corner is intended to be a gateway linking the Olympic village and sports venues with the spectator and event zones in Grant Park.