When Mayor Richard Daley and Chicago city planners imagined Millennium Park, they saw magnetic works of art and architecture that were both meditative and kinetic, participatory and constantly changing.
Thirteen years since its completion in 2003, it’s what they could not envision in 1997, what they did not expect, that also makes Millennium Park one of the world’s most memorable urban play spaces, according to Tony Jones, CBE, chairman-emeritus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In a presentation, titled Art + People + Money: Millennium Park, Chicago and hosted by Centro San Antonio Friday evening at Plaza de Armas, Jones delivered the inside story of how the city transformed “an industrial wasteland” into an engaging park and its multimillion-dollar cultural and economic impact.
It’s a story not unlike what is evolving in downtown San Antonio, at Hemisfair, with the parallels and connections between the two parks nearly as reflective as Millennium’s famed “Cloud Gate” sculpture.
Don’t just take it from Jones.
“A woman named Alicia who lives in Chicago, who can walk to Millennium Park and hear the symphony, or walk there and have a picnic, comes to San Antonio and saw what we’re doing at Hemisfair, and saw that this is exactly what is going to be offered to San Antonio,” said Anne Kraus, president and executive director of Hemisfair Conservancy. “She was so excited about Hemisfair, she is now one of our conservancy donors.”
Originally created for the 1968 World’s Fair, Hemisfair is 96 acres of space in the heart of downtown that planners believe had the potential to serve as a centerpiece of the city, tying together River North, Southtown and the emerging tech district. But first, the aging site would need redevelopment.
So in 2009, the City of San Antonio formed the Hemisfair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation, a nonprofit government corporation to expand the existing park and improve its quality through preservation and growth. In 2012, the City issued $30 million worth of bond funds for the project.
To see the Hemisfair master plan, click here.
Last year, first signs of the multi-year project began to emerge with the opening of Yanaguana Garden. Since then, surveys show more than a half million visitors from all across the city have visited.
“It’s bringing the community together,” Kraus said. “It’s very exciting. It’s exactly what an urban space is supposed to do.”
The ties that bind the world-renowned Millennium Park to the vision for Hemisfair Park in San Antonio go beyond Chicago-native Kraus and one donor, and are as noteworthy as the art, architecture and histories of the parks themselves.
In phase two of Hemisfair’s renovation currently taking shape, a 15-acre Civic Park will offer visitors more than eight football fields of open public space with inviting stretches of green, interconnected plazas and courtyards, space enough for festivals, performances and recreation year-round. It will be recognized as one of the world’s great urban parks, asserts the website. And here’s why.
“Her vision is exquisite,” Kraus said. Gustafson and the design team did their homework. To fully understand the culture, influences and needs of the city, they visited San Antonio and surrounding areas such as the Hill Country at various times throughout the year before presenting a plan.
Millennium Park served as a benchmark for the envisioning of Hemisfair Park, according to Kraus, especially for how it connects the art and cultural meccas of Chicago.
“They bring life to each other,” Kraus said. “That’s exactly what Hemisfair can do with its cultural partners within the vicinity — the Institute of Texan Cultures, Magik Theatre, the Briscoe Western Art Museum, La Villita and more. And when people come to those institutions, it brings energy to Hemisfair. It’s a virtuous cycle.”
That was by design all along for Millennium Park, Jones said, but what they didn’t expect has been, by all accounts, serendipitous. From the commercial Segway tour business that sprung up – inspiring the park police to choose the same mode of transportation – to the symbiotic system of wildlife that now occupies the park, Jones said these surprises have “turned a piece of dirt into something special.”
During construction, local lore has it that taxi drivers avoided the area and complained to riders about the cost to taxpayers for “Millennium Pork,” Jones said. In San Antonio, contention has existed at the highest levels since the start.
Now Chicago taxi drivers go out of their way to show it off.
“People were upset during construction – until it was done,” Jones said. “When it was complete, they immediately embraced it with an incredible sense of pride.”
It helped that construction of places like the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Anish Kopoor’s “Cloud Gate,” hidden behind scaffolding and drapes for so long, created suspense. Today, as another example of what was not anticipated, artists clamor for the opportunity to showcase in a park where visitors so openly embrace each of the changing exhibits, often funding the installation themselves.
To capitalize on the success of the park, The Art Institute added the Modern Wing to their facility in 2009, completely funded by private donations, and connected it to the park with the stunning Nicholls Bridgeway.
Even the cost of the park — $490 million, built with $220 million in private donations and $270 million in municipal bonds — though not a surprise, adds to the transformative story that is Millennium Park. Fundraisers challenged private donors, founding Chicago families, to “do now for future generations what your ancestors did for you,” Jones said.
Those 4,500 cars that once occupied parking lots near the railways of the harbor, and displaced by Millennium Park? They now have space in an underground parking garage which the City recently sold for $525 million in order to retire the bonds and make a profit of $258 million. Bus shelter advertising funds the $6 million annual operating costs for the park as does the daily private-use rental fee for the park — which Toyota recently did for $1 million.
The economic impact of the park is estimated at $1 billion a year, in part due to the kind of “build it and they will come” effect, with office towers surrounding the lakefront park regularly being converted into more-profitable residential buildings.
Though the park was not completed until well after the actual millennium, most would agree, from an economic standpoint, if not art, architecture and public space, it is one for the ages.
At Hemisfair, the master plan calls for a completion target date of 2020, with the first phase opening in time for the city’s Tricentennial in 2018.
Though rubble now exists where demolition of the old Convention Center buildings is making way for Civic Park, like a precursor to what’s to come, Juan O’Gorman’s magnificent mural, “Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas,” has emerged from where it was blocked by those walls.
“Now, when Civic Park is built, people can enjoy this magnificent piece of art for years to come,” Kraus said.
“Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate.” – Joyce Carol Oates
Top image: Chairman-emeritus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Tony Jones shows an image of Chicago during his talk on Millennium Park. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.