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Photograph: Chicago History Museum

Navy Pier history

How the historic pier morphed into a crowded, overpriced mess.


Convert it to luxury condos. Turn it into a cash cow by charging admission. Make it an extension of downtown commercial and residential districts. These ideas were all floated in lively debates when the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, better known as McPier, was created in 1989 to oversee the future of Navy Pier, as well as McCormick Place convention center. Then-chairman John R. Schmidt backed the vision that ultimately won out: shaping the pier as a public space with parkland and various attractions for locals and tourists.

Working with a budget of $200 million, which Schmidt calls a slim sum given the challenge, McPier created Navy Pier as we know it today, opening in 1995 before adding the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 1999. By 1996, it had become the state’s top tourist draw with 4.5 million visitors. Currently, it attracts about 8 million people a year.

Schmidt hasn’t had much to do with the pier since his initial chairman post, but he’s now back in charge, along with 12 other board members of the private nonprofit corporation appointed to run and revamp the pier. While Schmidt is pleased with how the pier has turned out, many Chicagoans disagree. Planners and architects say that its stylistically schizophrenic structures, its propensity for chain restaurants and its confusing layout don’t do justice to the historic 1916 pier envisioned by luminary architect Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago.

However, despite its reputation as an out-of-town draw, a 2010 Urban Land Institute study found that 73 percent of visitors are from the Chicago area. But that same study pointed out a host of flaws that experts blame in part on the leadership of McPier, which became disproportionately focused on McCormick Place, and the facility’s choppy transition from working pier to tourist attraction.

Looking back, Navy Pier has housed World War I soldiers’ barracks; a hospital starting around 1918; World War II Navy training programs; a business convention center in the 1950s; and a campus of the University of Illinois from 1946–1965. A half century ago it was among the nation’s busiest inland ports with more than 200 overseas ships docking a day. But by the time McPier took over two decades ago, it was relatively bedraggled and neglected.

Schmidt says McPier was initially more focused on Navy Pier than McCormick Place, but that shifted as McCormick Place expanded and the pier became a “poor stepsister,” in the words of Daniel C. Van Epp, lead author of the Urban Lands Institute study. The findings also described McPier’s management style as “‘it’ll do’ mode.”

Annual attendance peaked at 9 million in 2000, then steadily declined to just over 8 million in 2009 (2010 saw an uptick with close to 8.7 million visitors). Schmidt notes the McPier structure “did become dysfunctional,” especially as Festival Hall, built for smaller trade shows, has been underused since McCormick Place expansions. “Some people on the board developed the notion Navy Pier should be used as a way of making money to support the trade-show business” at McCormick Place, he says.

Other critics say Navy Pier’s changing uses made it difficult to maintain a cohesive public identity. “Historical remnants are both part of its charm and part of what’s holding it back,” says Metropolitan Planning Council vice president Peter Skosey, who was involved in the 1990s planning process. “You’re walking down the main hall from one end of the pier to the main ballroom, and the hallway itself curves and jiggers and goes from wide to narrow. It’s not how someone would have planned it if you were planning from scratch.”

Navy Pier boosters hope turning the pier over to the private nonprofit led by cultural and financial heavy-hitters will revitalize it, and while the development plans to be unveiled in coming months suggest major changes, Schmidt and fellow board member Kelly Welsh say their mission is largely to continue the pier’s success.

“This isn’t a recovery situation,” Welsh says. “It’s more of a, How can we make Navy Pier even better?”

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