Battle shaping up over Children's Museum plans

The Chicago Children's Museum formally introduced plans for a new facility in Grant Park to the city council Wednesday as opponents vowed to continue efforts to derail what they see as a broadside attack on long-standing precedent that the park be kept "open, clear and free."

Mayor Richard M. Daley, a strident advocate of the museum's plans, shrugged off  threats of litigation and continued to champion the proposal as critical to the city's children.

"By locating the Children's Museum in Grant Park, next to Millennium Park, we would continue to give thousands of our children in every part of our city an experience of life beyond their neighborhoods, many of them for the first time," Daley said at a city council press conference Wednesday.

The museum, which says it has outgrown its current home at Navy Pier, could see its request voted on by the city council as early as June.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (D-42), who has been trying to convince museum officials to build elsewhere, says he will continue to fight against new construction in the park and believes he may have the votes to defeat the project in the council.

The proposal will be the focus of an intense lobbying effort in the next six weeks, Reilly says. He says he plans to meet daily with his colleagues on the council and ask them to oppose the "land grab."

"It's going to be, I think, a daily fight," says Reilly. "This is a fluid situation. Votes are flipping back and forth. A number of votes have changed hands in just the last 48 hours."

Daley insists that the park location is "the most logical" place for drawing children of all backgrounds together. He cites its proximity to public transportation and parking as key to the museum's continuing success.

Along with drawing the ire of neighbors concerned about added traffic, the museum's proposal for a $100 million structure in the north end of Grant Park has drawn intense criticism from parks advocates.

They, along with Reilly, say it's important to keep the park "forever, open, clear and free," a principle established by the Sanitary Canal commission in 1836 and given legal sanction by the Illinois Supreme Court after numerous legal battles led by Chicago businessman A. Montgomery Ward, who fought to keep the park free of development.

For Chicago aldermen, the issue is shaping up partly as a fight over aldermanic prerogative, a tradition of deferring to  their colleagues' positions on matters of zoning and development within their wards.

Daley says it's "ridiculous" that one alderman should stand in the way of a new museum in the park.

"It would be like Alderman (Brian) Doherty stopping all construction at O'Hare field," says Daley. "This park belongs to all of us. It doesn't belong to one person, it doesn't belong to me. It doesn't belong to you."

The $100 million facility will help to make Grant Park a more vibrant gathering space, says Natalie Kreiger, spokeswoman for the Chicago Children's Museum.

The latest plans call for a glass-encased entrance pavilion on Upper Randolph Street that would allow visitors access to a field house, a subterranean museum, park and parking garage.

The entrance pavilion, along with glass sculptural skylights in an adjacent courtyard, would be the only new structures located at park level, says Kreiger.

The museum, in conjunction with the park district, will be building a new field house on the site of the existing Daley Bicentennial field house.

"We're not taking any green space, and we're not constructing any new buildings," says Krieger. "We feel that our development is compliant with the existing covenant and law."

Daley says he thinks the museum's plans comply with  the Montgomery Ward decisions.

"We just built a new addition to the art museum, and no one one questioned it. No one," said Daley at the press conference. We built Millennium Park, and no one questioned that."

But Reilly and other opponents say the museum's plans would breach long-standing precedent and drag the city into a lawsuit.

"Montgomery Ward spent 20 years in court fighting these fights," says Reilly. "I think there are people who are willing to litigate on this issue, who feel passionately about Grant Park and are willing to go through these exact same steps."

Daley says the city is prepared for a court fight.

"There's always expensive court fights. That's what lawyers are for," Daley said. It would be worth it "to fight for the children."

Reilly has the support of grassroots organizations like Friends of the Park and Preservation Chicago.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Children's Museum committee has lined up some high profile civic leaders.

"We're up against some deep pockets and some pretty powerful folks," says Reilly. " And that's not lost on me. But I do think we have the facts on our side. We certainly have the law on our side."

The plan is expected to go before the plan commission in mid-May. It will also have to win approval from the city's zoning committee before it faces a vote from the full council.

Discuss

DAWN HEITSCH, 04-10-2008

I feel this will create a precedence for building in the park. And why on Earth would you want to build a Children's museum underground?! Leave the park as it is; let the children learn and play with fresh air in their lungs in Nature!

MARIA GRAY, 04-10-2008

This makes no sense. We have plenty of empty buildings in the city (Carson Pririe Scott) that could used for this. Wouldn't it be more green for the Green Mayor to use existing structures.

GEOFF DOUGHERTY, 04-10-2008

Maria, that's a really interesting question/suggestion. Anyone else got suggestions for vacant buildings that could house the museum?

FRANK COCONATE, 04-13-2008

The Children's Museum in Grant Park is just another Park Grill scam or Miegs Field or Millinium Park or Soldier Field or O'Hare Expansion. The Mayor creates these projects so his friends and family can continue to make money at the expense of the taxpayer! When will this end?