Chicago hits this one out of the park
There's something for everyone at the beautiful, civilized Millennium
CHICAGO -- This city's new Millennium Park is the best urban public park I've ever seen, anywhere, and that includes some famed ones in places like Rotterdam and Paris.
The downside for Bostonians comes when you compare it to what we can expect on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which is apparently going to be mostly grass, trees, paths, and two or three isolated cultural institutions.
Millennium Park is much too big and wonderful to be fully described here. Suffice it to say that it boasts a fountain, Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa, that smiles and frowns (yes, literally, from 50-foot-tall LED displays) while it plays games with you by spurting water in unexpected ways and places. There's an amazing sculpture, the ''Cloud Gate" by Anish Kapoor, which virtually hypnotizes everyone who looks at it. There's a brilliant outdoor performance pavilion, the Pritzker Pavilion, by California architect Frank Gehry. And much, much more.
Best of all, Millennium Park is a true commons. People of every age and ethnicity un-self-consciously merge and mix. The location is as public as public gets. Lake Michigan is on one side, the downtown Loop is on another. The Art Institute of Chicago is across the street. Oh, yes, and there's an underground parking garage under most of the park.
Rather than go on listing merits, I'll describe just one small feature that can stand for the others. This is the Bicycle Station. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the park, it's a building where you can park your bike in a 300-space heated room (there are thoughtful little gutters along the stairs, so you can easily walk your bike up and down), change your clothes at a private locker, rent a bike (it will have a map in the handlebar bag), get your own bike repaired, buy a helmet or other equipment, take a shower after your ride, nosh at the snack bar, and sun yourself on outdoor lounge chairs in an enclosed patio. The price? A dollar a day.
The Bicycle Station also markets itself, pointing out to employers that employees who bike to work take fewer sick days and help the company convey ''a green, money-smart, people-oriented image." You can check it out at chicagobikestation.com.
You'd think such a place would have to be in Copenhagen or Tokyo. But no. This amazingly civilized amenity is right here in the rowdy, ungovernable USA.
The real question, for a Bostonian, is how can Chicago pull off something so fantastic --Millennium Park cost half a billion dollars -- where we Bostonians always seem to be quarreling over what species of tree to plant.
Whomever you ask, the answer begins with the mayor, Richard M. Daley. It turns out the mayor is a devoted bicyclist. His ambition, says a friend, is someday to bicycle across America. And he reads. Mark Schuster, an MIT professor of city planning who spent a year in Chicago, says: ''He's always searching for new ideas for the city. He reads voraciously. Almost every day he sends some magazine clip to his aides with a memo that says: 'We need one of these.' And he has good rapport with the foundations and the corporate community. They consider Chicago to be a museum of architecture to be curated."
I checked with the godfather of Chicago architects, Stanley Tigerman, and asked why we can't do it in Boston. ''Everybody in the East is worded to death," he says. ''Chicago is not an intellectual place. We're blue collar Czechs and Polacks. 'I will' is the city's motto. The park was three or four years late and $150 million over budget, but the money was raised privately. For the city, it's a win-win. The entire population of Chicago comes here. The fountain is packed wall to wall with kids every day, many of them from the suburbs. Foreigners come from Terre Haute, [Ind.]. The restaurant is minting money, and the towel concession makes more money than I will in my life."
The more you talk to Chicagoans, the more you're impressed with what can only be called civic patriotism. Millennium Park's chief fund-raiser, on the private side, was John Bryan, a retired CEO of Sara Lee. Bryan raised $240 million; the city and state kicked in $260 million. How did Bryan do it?
''Originally, the idea was just a parking lot with 'enhancements' on top," Bryan says. ''But the mayor gave the private sector a license to figure out and create the enhancements. We wrapped a civic cloak around the project. We said it would be an iconic symbol of the city. It would define Chicago as a place where art and design are alive, one of the greatest in the world. We wanted the best architects and artists the world had to offer. The strategy was to seek the enhancements first, and then look for sponsorship. There are nine sponsors for the nine principal enhancements.
''We made it seem that donating to the park was joining a club. We said the price of membership was a million dollars, not a dollar more or a dollar less. Some people we hadn't contacted called and asked if they could join. There are 106 members, and we gather annually on the stage at the Pritzker Pavilion. We had a small maquette made of the ''Cloud Gate," with the donors' names on it.
''Altogether we raised 30 million more than we spent. We've kept that as a fund for maintenance and programming. A lot of programming is important at this early stage. Everything is free. We provide the only free outdoor classical concerts in the country."
Boston no longer has so many locally owned businesses of the kind that might feel a patriotic attachment to the city. Most of the major corporations in Boston, including the Globe, are now owned out of town. Does this make a difference?
Bryan doesn't think so. He believes Chicago's kind of enthusiasm is universal. ''People like to show they've been successful, that they've given a free park to the people of the city," he says.
Chicago, though, is unique when it comes to architecture. ''The project kept evolving, it kept getting more courageous," says Donna Robertson, dean of architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology. ''Chicago has so much appreciation of architecture in all income levels."
The park has a board and a three-person staff, plus volunteers. It's Millennium Park, Inc. The executive director is Ed Euler, an architect who previously shepherded the project for the city. ''We think it's the greatest outdoor music facility in the world," says Euler. (Eat dirt, Tanglewood.) ''We do 50 free concerts every summer, all kinds -- gospel, classical, world cultures. Two and half to 3 million people are coming each year, including many foreign visitors -- it's been widely publicized.
''Basically, the public built the infrastructure [the underground garage and its covering] and private donors built the surface. The money came from folks and businesses who made their fortunes in Chicago and who then want to give back. Giving back is just in their blood. It's always been that way."
Euler says it's estimated that the park will increase surrounding real estate values by $1.2 billion. As a result, the city was able to arrange tax increment financing.
Boston can raise plenty of money for private institutions like Harvard or the MFA. It doesn't, though, seem to possess the patriotic love of public works that you find in Chicago. It doesn't help, either, that the Rose Kennedy Greenway has been planned and managed by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. Who wants to donate to a Turnpike Authority?
Chicago and its mayor have mastered the art of marrying private wealth and public power. It's an act we can learn from.
P.S. On the same visit to Chicago, I arranged a tour of the new Soldier Field by the owner of the Bears, Mike McCaskey. The designers were Boston architects Wood and Zapata. Soldier Field -- also in a downtown waterfront park -- is as inventive and terrific as Gillette Stadium is timid and predictable. I hope we're not seeing a trend here.
Robert Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org