15 ways to fix Navy Pier

A pie-in-sky makeover that locals and tourist will love.

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  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    1. Add a souped-up indoor-outdoor water park on the roof.
    With Chicago’s long, bitter winters, we shouldn’t have to drive to Gurnee or even Elmhurst for a splash in an all-season waterpark. Imagine a Navy Pier water wonderland, complete with a retractable glass roof for those few summer months when kids can actually enjoy the elements, plus a superfast water coaster, a water cannon, a floating trampoline, a surfing simulator and more. And for the after-8pm adults-only time block, maybe a swim-up bar? Just a thought.—Anna Tarkov

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    2. Open a soul club.
    There are plenty of jazz and rock venues in this city, and the blues has its museums. Which leaves the under-represented genre of soul. Forgotten Chicago crooners continue to be dusted off, largely by the Numero Group label: So, have the guys at Numero curate the acts, and the vibe of a pier soul club could conjure long-shuttered South Side party joints like Perv’s House or Pepper’s Hideout. Bonus: If you put the unpredictable Syl Johnson on a stage, you’ve got the city’s best comedy and funk house in one.—Brent DiCrescenzo

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    3. Give the people something original to eat.
    The pier can capitalize on a demographic of people who will travel—in packs, with cash—to any corner of the city, but it must expand its food offerings past Dippin’ Dots. The key to attracting food obsessives: Offer something from a local artisan that’s not available anywhere else. Say, a doughnut factory helmed by HotChocolate’s Mindy Segal, or an enormous, tourable chocolate-making facility run by Sarah Levy of Sarah’s Pastries and Candies. Give these factories large glass walls so passersby can watch the process, and set up a row of locally run food carts so they have something to snack on (Bill Kim popcorn; Great Lake calzone) while they gawk. Finally, convince the Chopping Block to put its biggest-yet school on the pier, and give it an auditorium to program with chef demos, author talks and all other sorts of live food porn.—David Tamarkin

  • Ilustration: Ian Dingman

    4. Please local beer lovers with a brewery and tasting room.
    After strolling the pier for hours, even an overpriced macrobrew at the Beer Garden at Navy Pier tastes fantastic. But what if that watering hole became an outpost of a local brewery—let’s say Half Acre—where you could tour the facility, sample a range of small-batch beers in a tasting room and retire to a beer garden on the promenade? The pier might just become a magnet for locals without kids.—Julia Kramer

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    5. Transform the front lawn into a kids’ “sprayground.”
    Navy Pier can get in on the splish-splashy action of Millennium Park’s Crown Fountain by turning its front lawn turf into interactive surf. Gateway Park already boasts an interactive granite fountain with dozens of spouting jets: Why not make the lawn even more kid-friendly with water-blasting minireplicas of old schooners and freighters that once sailed Lake Michigan? The maritime-themed playground could feature ladders and slides, plus helms for “steering” and binocular scopes for “spying.” Attached buckets, water cannons and motion-censored sprayers jutting out from the spongy, water-absorbing ground would keep sea dogs cool. Every 20 minutes, the park could be at “high seas”—with all the sprayers coming on full blast to drench little sailors. In cooler months, it could still be used as a playground, sans the soaking.—Joanna Batt

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    6. Assemble a Columbian Exposition-themed amusement park.
    The pier’s already got a Ferris wheel and even a seasonal hot-air balloon ride—modern versions of two of the 1893 fair’s top attractions. Why not go all out and build an entire exposition-inspired theme park? Start with a lagoon—complete with Venetian-style gondola rides—surrounding the Ferris wheel, and install a golden replica of the iconic statue of the republic to loom over it. Liven up the perimeter of the park with a modern version of the first fair’s Ice Railway, an all-season train mounted on a track of artificial ice and snow. Stalls along the east side of the park would hearken back to the “international village” displays of the fair’s Midway, serving up global snacks and gifts from exotic locales such as Java, Samoa, Turkey and Germany.—Martina Sheehan

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    7. Dedicate a streetcar line to usher people to the Pier.
    With those free tourist trolleys as obsolete as Venetian Night, Navy Pier–goers coming from the nearest El stop, Grand, either must wait for the infrequent 29 State or 65 Grand buses, or walk the dismal mile-long stretch—a tough trek, especially with little ones in tow. A San Francisco–style streetcar dedicated to taking people on a loop from the Grand stop, down Illinois Street to Navy Pier, then back west on Grand Avenue (with some stops in between) would convince more people to take public transportation to the pier, alleviating Streeterville congestion and overcrowded parking lots. Plus, kids would be so enamored with a streetcar ride they might even forget to whine when you skip the souvenir shops.—Laura Baginski

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    8. Build a floating car silo.
    Encountering a lot full sign with a car full of kids is one of the worst ways to kick off a day at the pier. Let’s take a cue from Autostadt, Volkswagen’s car-focused amusement park in Wolfsburg, Germany, where new cars are efficiently stored in 160-foot-tall glass towers. The pier could replace its west lot with a partially underground silo in the lake, adding about 1,200 spaces. Inside the cylinder’s center, an automated forklift-like elevating device would pull and transport vehicles to ground level in seconds, while an underwater walkway could usher visitors directly to the pier.—Martina Sheehan

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    9. Host local storefront showcases at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
    For many locals, Chicago Shakes justifies a schlep out to the pier. So while a proposed expansion with a 950-seat proscenium theater seems appealing—particularly if it means accommodating more foreign productions in the fantastic World’s Stage series—more could be done with the space CST now has. The 200-seat upstairs black box sat vacant for the first half of this season and is only sparsely booked this spring. If Shakes gets a third space, more than doubling its capacity, it could offer the upstairs for subsidized use by Chicago storefront groups, much like Steppenwolf does with its Garage. Pier tourists would see the great variety of Chicago theater and locals would have even more reason to visit.—Kris Vire

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    10. Install a skate park in Festival Hall.
    Skate parks are a hit elsewhere in the city—along the lakefront (on the South and North Sides), below the Kennedy (at Logan Boulevard). Why not build a modular one in the pier’s underused Festival Hall? Design it full of quarter pipes and miniramps, which can be unbolted and moved to create different layouts, or rolled away if conventions need the floor space. Teens would get a space of their own, somewhere to hang out year-round when their younger sibs hit the Chicago Children’s Museum.—Web Behrens

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    11. Wow kids with an underwater fish-viewing area.
    People love fish. Just ask the Shedd Aquarium, which packs ’em in on weekends. The pier could function as a Great Lakes–focused outpost of the Shedd: In a shallow, warm area of the pier, create a suitable habitat with native plants and boulders. The Shedd’s experts say that’ll attract fish, including smallmouth bass, yellow perch, salmon, trout and the occasional round goby and zebra mussel. Add a giant window below water level and, voilà, it’s an urban, aquatic paradise.—Madeline Nusser

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    12. Park food trucks on the promenade.
    The city’s red tape and the vested interests of restaurant owners have made food trucks hard to get off the ground in Chicago. A designated food-truck “park”—like those in Portland, Oregon, where a bunch of trucks gather in a central location to service late-night crowds—would be a win-win: The city could regulate the trucks, the food-truck entrepreneurs wouldn’t have to worry about parking and the food-freaks could actually find the trucks.—Julia Kramer

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    13. Make a new home for Chicago Children’s Theatre.
    The city’s most prominent kids’ theater company is still homeless, but a space at a new-and-vastly improved Navy Pier—perhaps where the current parking garage stands (see change No. 8)—could give it the attention it deserves. Founder and artistic director Jacqueline Russell points to the home of Seattle Children’s Theatre in Seattle Center near the Space Needle as a model for what could happen here, noting that the Seattle complex has become a hub of culture—complete with an outdoor area and various dining options.—Judy Sutton Taylor

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    14. Bring in local indie shops.
    Later this month, the Chicago Fashion Incubator pop-up shop, which showcases the work of local designers, will open for a second year at the 900 Shops. We suggest keeping the store open throughout the year at the pier, and including studio space so visitors can see the designers in action before scoring new Chicago-crafted clothes. And while we’re at it, it’d be nice to have a Threadless store (it already has neighborhood locations in Lakeview and Wicker Park) that sells cool, crowd-sourced Chicago-themed T-shirts; a Renegade Handmade store featuring local artisans’ goods; and a smaller off-shoot of Ravenswood’s Lillstreet Art Center, complete with shop and drop-off art classes for kids.—Kevin Aeh

  • Illustration: Ian Dingman

    15. Plant roof-top gardens and add green space.
    Any pristine slice of waterfront begs for a picnic spot. While the historic east end of the pier has an amusing Boardwalk Empire feel, we’d like to soften it with a bit of greenery. We envision a blanket of native grasses forming soft, hill-like slopes around the east end of the pier, complete with a path ascending onto Festival Hall’s roof—something like Steven Holl’s ambitiously designed new wing at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum, set partially inside a hill.—Madeline Nusser

Illustration: Ian Dingman

1. Add a souped-up indoor-outdoor water park on the roof.
With Chicago’s long, bitter winters, we shouldn’t have to drive to Gurnee or even Elmhurst for a splash in an all-season waterpark. Imagine a Navy Pier water wonderland, complete with a retractable glass roof for those few summer months when kids can actually enjoy the elements, plus a superfast water coaster, a water cannon, a floating trampoline, a surfing simulator and more. And for the after-8pm adults-only time block, maybe a swim-up bar? Just a thought.—Anna Tarkov


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