Chicago’s historic Navy Pier sits on 20,000 wood pilings that extend 3,300 feet (1,000 m) from the Chicago shoreline into Lake Michigan. Located in the Near North Side community, the pier was built in 1916 at a cost of $4.5 million, equivalent to $90.5 million today. In 1917 and 1918, during World War I, the pier housed soldiers, the Red Cross, and even Home Defense units. Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and, with 8 million visitors a year, has become Chicago’s top tourist attraction, according to the nonprofit Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), the dual state/city agency that owns and operates the pier.

Navy Pier was built as a component of the Plan of Chicago as envisioned by famed architect and city planner Daniel Burnham and his associates. Two piers were originally planned, but Pier #1 was eventually scrapped, leaving Municipal Pier #2, now known as Navy Pier. It was planned and built as a mixed-use facility dotted with parks for public gatherings and warehouses for commerce. Developed primarily to serve a commercial function, its warehouses were created to serve lake freighters that needed to load and unload goods and store cargo; secondarily, it was a place for passenger steamers to dock. In its infancy, Navy Pier was served by its own streetcar. 

When the pier was constructed, mass-produced cars and trucks were just beginning to transform U.S. transportation, and horseless carriages soon were siphoning off freight as well as passengers who had once used Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. By the 1920s, considered the Pier’s Golden Age, an average of 3.2 million people visited the pier annually, mainly to use it as a cool, lakefront summer playground before the days of air conditioning. With its picnic areas and children’s playground, it was perfect for families who needed a respite from the heat. Singles and couples were drawn to its entertainment offerings, which included dance halls, dining pavilions, and an auditorium.

Through the years, the transformation of Municipal #2 continued. In 1927, the pier was renamed Navy Pier in honor of World War I veterans. It was a prescient name change, because the pier would also serve as a naval training facility during World War II. From 1946 to 1965, it served as the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois. But then the pier’s fortunes turned. For the next four decades, the pier was little used except from 1978 to 1983, when it was the site of ChicagoFest, a popular summer music festival.

In 1989, a ULI Advisory Services panel was convened to help the city arrest serious decay at Navy Pier, which had experienced a decline so apparent that there was even talk of closing it, eliminating its unparalleled views of the Chicago skyline. But the ULI panel came back with a framework for reimagining Navy Pier that included creating a wharf-like frontage street and providing boat slips and other marina services. The panel rejected the idea of adding office space because that market was readily served at more convenient downtown locations. The ULI panel maintained that, developed properly, the pier would pay for itself. In 1995, after a four-year, $150 million renovation, the pier was reopened as the city’s new lakefront playground, with a 150-foot-tall (46 m) Ferris wheel, an outdoor stage, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, plus shops, restaurants, and exhibition halls.

But by 2010, after nearly a century of use, the pier was looking dated and cheesy, and once again, because of the success of the 1989 plan, MPEA asked a ULI Advisory Services panel to address a revision of Navy Pier and recommend actions to achieve that vision through financially sustainable renovation, redevelopment, and reprogramming­—the kind of makeover that would turn it into a world-class cultural destination.

Renovated pier plans had been proposed about five years earlier. In January 2006, the MPEA released another plan for a major renovation of the pier that called for a monorail, a spokeless Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, a floating hotel, and an 80,000-square-foot (7,000 sq m) water park with a Great Lakes theme. The plan would have nearly doubled the current parking capacity and included a new theater with a larger capacity. The estimated $2 billion price tag, combined with the Great Recession, derailed that plan.

The second ULI study, released in November 2010, recommended a more modest and realistic set of enhancements aimed at retaining the pier’s traditional role as a public space rather than turning it into a theme park. The new plan incorporates a stepped approach to redevelopment, as well as some governance changes.

The panel had a number of challenges to address, including energizing Navy Pier during the low season and maximizing use during the high season. During the warm months, the ULI report noted, the pier is an extremely active space drawing vast numbers of people to stroll, eat, entertain themselves, and take in the views. The panel suggested that new restaurants and clubs be introduced to increase nighttime use of the pier and envisioned bringing in a developer to add shops as well as a 200-plus-room boutique hotel near the existing Festival Hall to entice guests who use the Grand Ballroom for weddings and parties to stay the night. 

“The plan envisions a lot more white-tablecloth restaurants, and maybe a jazz club,” says MPEA trustee James Reilly.

The ULI panel also called for expansion and renovation of the underused Crystal Garden space, as well as the addition of new, winter-friendly cabs to the existing Ferris wheel. The Ferris wheel is a Chicago native, making its debut at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Today, about 750,000 visitors use it annually, but it does not provide a comfortable, enclosed ride during the winter. The panel said a new wheel with enclosed and climate-controlled cabs, similar to those on the popular London Eye Ferris wheel, could become a year-round attraction and high-profile landmark.

The plan also calls for greatly expanding the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Chicago Children’s Museum, which would encompass nearly 100,000 square feet (9,300 sq m). Leaders of the popular children’s museum had debated moving to nearby Grant Park but decided to stay after ULI released its report reimagining the pier. The report also suggested landscaping the public spaces to take advantage of the area’s light and water and adding amenities that would enhance pedestrian enjoyment.

In July 2011, the board responsible for Navy Pier approved a modest version of the ULI plan, backing a $155 million general plan to revitalize and beautify the pier in the hopes of attracting more year-round visitors, as well as building growth toward implementing other long-term improvements.

The MPEA offered to provide $50 million in seed money. This past February, five finalist design teams, whittled down from more than 50 that had submitted proposals to redesign the pier, presented their plans. Selected for the project was New York City–based James Corner Field Operations, which presented a bold, sustainability-minded vision for the pier. The plans, which largely dovetail with ULI’s recommendations, include a juice bar and a vertical urban farm that would provide food for the restaurants on the pier.

The new Centennial Vision, as the approved revitalization plan is called, gives the lakefront back to the city and, with the panel’s suggested improvements, will make Navy Pier a truly iconic and world-class destination as it approaches its 100th anniversary in 2016. In outlining a set of near- and long-term recommendations to refresh and revitalize this aging icon, members of the 2010 panel brought diverse experience to the challenge from many areas of expertise—as Advisory Services panels have done since they became a core part of the Institute’s work in 1947. The Navy Pier has now benefitted twice from this valuable service.