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Development or preservation: what's going on at Navy Pier?

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It's a curious thing, the continuing protest over the redevelopment of Navy Pier--the $150 million plans made by the city and state are well under way, but opposition to them has never really ended.

The latest hubbub arose last month, over a state agency's suggestion to remove the pier from the National Register of Historic Places, a federally maintained list. The conflict is essentially an intramural squabble among preservationists as to whether the pier is still historically valuable without its shipping sheds, which were destroyed last summer as part of the redevelopment. But it indicates that state and city planners can expect continued public scrutiny.

"We don't oppose the redevelopment of Navy Pier, but we would like to see it occur without violating the significant aspect of a Chicago landmark," says Carol Wyant, executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. "This issue won't go away. There will be give-and-take on it for a long time."

The pier, just east of Lake Shore Drive near Grand Avenue, was once a major port for cargo-hauling barges and ships. For the last two decades, however, it's been the subject of much debate between preservationists, public planners, and developers.

Most preservationists and open-lands activists want it to remain completely open to the public, with the pavilions at its western and eastern ends to be used for public expositions and civic gatherings.

Developers dismiss that idea as a waste of valuable real estate. They envision using the pier for a variety of multimillion-dollar commercial schemes, ranging from condominiums to shopping malls.

None of these developers have had the cash to back up their rhetoric, however. And though Mayor Harold Washington appointed a blue-ribbon committee to study the matter, it could not settle on a specific plan.

Then, in July 1989, Mayor Richard Daley struck a deal with Governor James Thompson to create the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority. The joint city and state body would oversee development of McCormick Place as well as the redevelopment of Navy Pier.

John Schmidt, a downtown lawyer and Daley confidant, was named chairman of the authority, $150 million was allotted to the Navy Pier redevelopment, and contracts were awarded to begin needed repairs.

"Almost half of the $150 million has been projected for basic structural work," says Schmidt. "I'm talking about bread-and-butter repairs like rebuilding the dock wall so the pier doesn't sink into the lake."

The creation of the authority caused concern among nearby North Lake Shore Drive residents, particularly those in Lake Point Tower, the high rise just west of the pier. They worried that too much commercial development there would only add to the area's traffic and other congestion.

But their objections were too parochial to inspire citywide opposition. And since the state intended to pay for the project with the proceeds from taxes on the sales of computer software and cigarettes, there was no opposition from antitax activists.

Though preservationists definitely objected to destroying the sheds, otherwise they have been guarded in their comments, partly because the authority has still not unveiled specific redevelopment plans.

"We are moving along toward a design which we expect to reveal publicly within a month," says Schmidt. "We have hired a contractor to be the construction manager, and they are working with an architect. Our objective is to have a final design by the spring and start work in the summer."

Schmidt says the final plans will call for a mix of open space and commercial development and preserve the buildings at the pier's east and west ends.

"We have said from day one that we will maintain the east-end building, and we are restoring the head house building on the west end," says Schmidt. "We would like to have an exhibition hall which could be used for things like the Art Expo. We would like to see more than one restaurant [on the pier]. The western end would be a complex that would include some museum space. And there would be a large open area that would be a year-round garden or an indoor park."

Schmidt says that having the sheds destroyed last summer, despite objections from preservationists, made sense under the circumstances. "I have always respected the view of anyone who wanted to argue for preservation, but it never seemed to me that the sheds had any historical value to be preserved. They were old rotting sheds built for commercial purposes. We did a study about renovating them and found that the cost was totally prohibitive."

Destroying the sheds did not require the approval of any city, state, or federal preservation agency. Though Navy Pier is a city landmark, that designation protects only the pier and its main building. And though the pier is also on the national register, the feds had no jurisdiction in this matter because the authority did not need a federal permit or use federal money to destroy the sheds.

Once the sheds had been torn down, however, staffers at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency recommended that Navy Pier be removed from the national register. If that agency's suggestion is approved, it will be easier for the authority to redevelop Navy Pier because it can bypass the approval procedures of both the federal and state agencies.

"As long as the pier remains on the national register, the authority needs our review to repair the dock wall," says David Blanchette, chief spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. "By taking it off the register, we would be removing ourselves from the process and removing one more hurdle in the redevelopment of Navy Pier."

The state agency's recommendation caught most observers by surprise. Why would a preservation group want to limit the little power it has over a valuable piece of property? True, the agency could not have stopped the authority from destroying the sheds. But their approval would be needed for the dock work because it requires a federal permit, and for any work on the east- and west-end buildings.

Some observers figured the agency was showing its disapproval of the authority's destruction of the sheds. "If the agency stays in on the process, they might ultimately be forced to approve a project that they dislike," says a local preservationist who asked to remain anonymous. "This might be their subtle attempt to show their disdain for what the McPier Authority did to the sheds and what it might do to the pier."

But Blanchette denies that the agency was making any such protest. "We did this strictly on the issue of architectural value. We felt that Navy Pier no longer met the national criteria for listing once the sheds were removed. If you take a historically valuable house and cut two-thirds of it away--I'm sorry, but that house no longer retains its historical significance."

And why didn't the agency attempt to prevent the sheds' destruction?

"We had no authority over the sheds," says Blanchette. "We knew that they planned to do some demolition, but since our approval was not needed, we were not aware of the extent. These are times of budget cuts and our staff is very busy. There are more than 1,000 national-register properties in Illinois. We care about Navy Pier, but there are other projects we also have to watch."

The agency's recommendation has been opposed by local preservationists.

"I understand their point--they're being purists," says Wyant. "In a sense the pier has been gutted. And if you let something that is compromised remain on the national register, you dilute the value of being registered. On the other hand, there are still some historically valuable properties remaining on the pier. And we feel strongly that any further alteration be subjected to the strictest review."

So far the federal government has not acted on the agency's recommendation. For the moment, then, the state agency still must review development plans.

"The best thing that has happened from all of this is that it has brought back attention to the project at Navy Pier," says Wyant. "The authority has not exactly been user friendly. They destroyed the sheds. Now maybe enough interest has been raised to prevent other damage."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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