Children's museum wins plan commission approval for Grant Park move

A controversial plan to allow the Chicago Children's Museum to build a new facility in Grant Park was overwhelmingly approved by the city's Plan Commission Thursday, following a nine-hour debate before an audience of hundreds.

Opponents of the project - including the alderman whose ward includes the park - have termed the proposal a "land grab" and violation of a longstanding principle that the park be kept "open, clear and free of any buildings."

But the project's 13-2 approval by the plan commission, which clears the way for the proposal to advance to the city council, was not unexpected. Mayor Richard M. Daley is a strident proponent of the move, which he claims would create a much-needed haven for the city's children.

Museum backers argue that the latest proposal, by keeping most of the $100 million structure underground, actually adds green space to the park.

"This project does more than protect park space," museum attorney Ted Novak argued Thursday. "It actually enhances it by creating new and accessible open space where a concrete bunker now stands."

The proposal calls for the excavation of an existing two-level parking garage in Daley Bicentennial plaza. Cascading terraces and sloping walks would cover the roof, museum planners say, creating additional green space and access to the park.

The project would also include a new $15 million field house, to be built by the museum and operated by the Park District,  replacing a dilapidated structure dating to the 1970s, museum officials said.

Such concessions have done little to appease strenuous opposition to the idea, rooted in a series of historic Illinois Supreme Court opinions, championed by Montgomery Ward, that forbid construction of buildings for private use and the charging of admission fees in Grant Park.

Such arguments, however, could not overcome support for the museum among members of the plan commission, including Chairman Linda Searle, who cited the existence of a standing building on the site as a primary factor in her approval of the plan. Searle said the proposal meets the requirements of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance and the city's zoning code.

Commissioners Lyneir Richardson and Doris Holleb provided the only two votes in opposition. Richardson expressed concern that the project could open the floodgates to future development in the park.

In a preview of how arguments will play out if the issue heads to court, Jack Guthman, special counsel for the Park District, said the absence of a "structure" in the park takes the Montgomery Ward decisions out of the equation.

The sole above-ground structure in the proposed museum, a 20-foot glass entrance pavilion with elevators leading down to the museum, parking and the field house, would be located on a sidewalk on Randolph Street, under the project's current design.

This means that a 1952 court decision that allowed underground structures should be the relevant precedent, Guthman said.

Alderman Brendan Reilly, the 42nd ward alderman leading the charge against the move, argued that, once approved, plans regarding the museum's height and density are likely to be amended.

He cited the example of Millennium Park, where he said the original plan grew to include new structures, increased building grade and subtracted green space, without public input or formal approval by the Plan Commission or aldermen.

The construction of a building that charges admission on what is specially protected public land, Reilly said, "amounts to a private institution taking public land for its own purposes, and that's what we call a land grab."

More than 200 people spoke during the meeting, with some waiting  up to 10 hours for their turn to address the commission.

"If this was really all about children, why are they spending thousands and thousands of dollars on radio advertising…and public relations firms?" asked audience member Julie Gibson.

"If this was really about children, the Chicago Children's Museum would not be here right now, trying to steal the most precious inheritance our children have, which is the gift of green space."

Audience member George Hallis also fumed at the commissioners.

"I sat here all afternoon and listened to you folks lob softballs to the CCM and nobody challenged any of the more ridiculous premises that we were offered," said Hallis. "It seems to me that if you bring enough money to the table, then taxpayer money doesn't count."

Rabbi Ira Youdovin, who lives down the street from the park, endorsed the project.

"I want all Chicagoans, especially our children, to have an equal opportunity to enjoy this extraordinary resource," said Youdovin, adding, "there is a God-given obligation to share that treasure with others."

Marca Bristo, president and CEO of Access Living, said the project's location and proximity to public transportation would give parents of disabled children more access to other cultural institutions downtown.

"This will open up parts of the park that have been altogether inaccessible to people like me," said Bristo.

Ald. Bernie Stone (D-50), Ald. Patrick O' Connor (D-40), and Ald. Ed Burke (D-14), who made up Thursday's aldermanic contingent on the 20-member commission, all voted in favor of the museum plan.

Aldermen Ray Suarez, (D-31), Mary Ann Smith (D-48) and William J. P. Banks (D-36 ) were absent.

The Children's Museum must now win approval from the city zoning committee at its May 20 meeting before facing a full council vote, expected to take place in early June.

Peggy Figiel, director of the opposition group Save Grant Park, said if the council approves the project, property owners immediately adjacent to the park would bring suit "immediately."