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Six Reasons the Chicago Children's Museum doesn't belong at Daley Bicentennial Plaza in Grant Park

 

     

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 -by Lynn Becker

[May 14, 2008] - As consideration by the Chicago Plan Commission approaches, six reasons why a Children's Museum victory would be a very bad thing for Chicago.

 

The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin

 

No Pictures. You can find a lot of those elsewhere on my website and blog. (and also read an alternative view in support of the museum here.) Just an extended summary argument of the case against the Chicago Children's Museum Grant Park land grab.

On Thursday, May 15th, the Chicago Plan Commission will be considering the Chicago Children's Museum proposal to build a new 100,000 square-foot home, plus a new 20,000 square foot field house - about twice the size of the current facility - at Daley Bicentennial Plaza in Grant Park. The proposal has begat one of the most controversial public policy battles in recent Chicago history. The land that the Chicago Children's Museum seeks to make its own is part of a park that A. Montgomery Ward's fought a historic, prolonged and ultimately successful battle to keep, in the words of an 1836 mandate forged by Chicago's original founding fathers, Forever Open Free and Clear.

At the time of the Ward court rulings, over a century ago, the meaning of that phrase was unambiguous and direct - public parkland, free of buildings and private interest. Over the past decade, however, increasingly creative ways have been found to subvert that meaning. Specifically, a large part of the arguments in favor of the museum have depended on FUD - fear, uncertainty and doubt.

The fear came early. When freshman 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly came out in opposition to the museum's plan, Mayor Richard M. Daley erupted in an calculated angry rant in which he sought to portray supporters of an open Grant Park as child-haters and racists. And it's gone downhill from there.

But doubt has been the most corrosive - and dangerous - aspect of the museum's battle plan. Both directly and through its public relations firms, the museum has pursued an Orwellian subversion of language itself, redefining the clear concepts of "park" and "open land" to something more elastic to their purpose, and making even 100,000 square-foot structures seem to disappear. "We are not talking about bringing a new building,"CCM President Jennifer Farrington recently told ABC 7, "We are talking about a new resource to the park."

This has become far more than a fight over a museum and a patch of land. How this issue is resolved will have an enormous influence of the future form of the City of Chicago, and so we thought it an opportune time to summarize the reasons why the Chicago Children's Museum doesn't belong in Grant Park.

1. The very concept of the museum is fatally flawed. If you sat down with the idea of designing an ideal museum for children, would you begin with the concept that it must be placed several levels below ground? Of course not. You'd more likely start with the question of what is the best possible environment for constructing a great new building.

But the starting point for the Children's Museum appears to have been very different. They want to be able to tap into the millions of people visiting Millennium Park year. But Millennium Park is full. There's no room to build anything else there. So the Children's Museum must move to open land across Columbus, on the eastern part of Grant Park. And because it's open land, they knew it was unlikely they'd get permission to simply build on top of it. They knew they'd have to place their museum under ground.

2. The flawed concept for the Children's Museum has doomed any chance for great architecture. The museum's campaign for their new museum has been ham-fisted and inept, but they did two things right. First, they got the mayor on their side. Second, they hired Krueck and Sexton, one of Chicago's most talented and accomplished architectural firms.

However, they gave them an impossible task. As professionals, Krueck and Sexton couldn't, in good conscience, create a subterranean bunker, devoid of natural light. But to get natural light into those below-grade spaces, they must intrude into the park. They tried an open pit and 20 foot skylights that would tower over park visitors, and when that plan gained public scorn, they created another plan, placing long strips of skylights beneath a sprawling complex of ramps leading from Upper Randolph to the park below. They have done their best, and have been clever and creative. But they cannot create a great building because that is only their secondary mandate. Their first was to create a building that can evade long-standing legal protections and slip through the regulatory and legislative process.

3. If the Children's Museum rancorous campaign is allowed to succeed, it will poison public discourse for years to come. "Politics ain't beanbag," the first Mayor Daley was reported to have remarked. Bear-knuckled politics has been a hallmark of Chicago political campaigns, but the Children's Museum, in league with the current mayor, have sought to make it the hallmark for public policy debates, as well.

Race-baiting charges have continued to be a major component of lobbying Chicago alderman to support the plan. The mayor and the museum have repeatedly sought to demonize anyone who would dare oppose their proposal. A consummate bully himself, the mayor recently attempted to portray community activists supporting an open Grant Park as being in his image, "They're threatening everybody — your political life. They're gonna defeat all aldermen. They're gonna beat everybody in the world. "

The museum has hired the public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton, perhaps best known for representing big tobacco and for admitting to have created a phony "grass-roots" group in support of Commonwealth Edison rate increases. For the Children's Museum, Hill and Knowlton has created similar "astroturf" groups that will disappear the moment the museum issue is resolved. In contrast, the groups opposing the museum are respected, long-standing Chicago institutions such as Friends of the Parks, Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago, Friends of Downtown, and the Midwest office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The museum's campaign has been evasive and often deceptive. With its "need-to-know only" micro-management of information, and attempted demonization of its opponents, the museum's campaign has calculatedly debased the very concept of public discourse. If their campaign succeeds, other cultural institutions will have no choice but to sit up and take notice, and many will shape their own future initiatives in the same mold. If for no other reason than this, the museum's plan must be defeated.

4. Like the museum, itself, what's really at stake is beneath the surface. This debate is not about "the children," as the mayor and the museum shamelessly protest. They are merely the pawns. Here is what it is really about:

a. A museum that wants to boost membership and revenue from a cut of the Millennium park traffic, and from the Park District subsidies that would come with the move.
b. A museum that wants to put the carny atmosphere of Navy Pier behind it and raise its stature through an adjacency to the Art Institute.
c. A mayor who wants to kill - once and for all - the A. Montgomery Ward protections impeding his freedom of movement to build in Grant Park. This becomes particularly important if the city wins the 2016 Olympics.
d. A mayor who sees the battle as an opportunity for undermining an alderman's historic right of veto over projects in his or her wards, a major source of their power that he would begin to transfer to himself.
e. A mayor who, over his long incumbency, has grown increasingly intolerant of effective dissent and who wants to make the museum battle a showcase for the futility of resistance.

5. The Children's Museum campaign subverts the very concept of public planning . "What is the best future use for Grant Park and Daley Bicentennial plaza?" That would have been the proper starting point for this debate, but of course, it began not with a question, but with a Children's Museum declaration: "Daley Bicentennial Plaza. You got it. We want it. Try and stop us." As alderman Brendan Reilly has rightly stated, if dibs were the accepted policy for every institution who saw the public land of Grant Park as their private land bank, there would be no Grant Park today.

As the Metropolitan Planning Council noted in coming out in opposition to the museum's proposal earlier this week, the Chicago Plan Commission is being asked to approve the proposal with only the paucity of information the museum has chosen to release. No independent analysis has been presented as to whether this is, in fact, the best use for the site. What will be the effect of the hundreds of parking spaces removed from the Grant Park garage to build the museum? What precedent will be set for other institutions seeking to build in the park? What further construction will be required as the Children's Museum continues to grow?

If the Plan Commission approves the museum's proposal without demanding answers to these questions, it will be declaring its own irrelevance in the planning process.

6. Open Clear and Free Remains a Vital Concept to the City's Well Being. The best way to look at this issue is to return to first principles. When the city fathers created their Open, Clear and Free mandate in 1836, the type of land grab represented today by the Chicago Children's Museum is just what they wanted to arrest. When A. Montgomery Ward fought to reinforce that mandate sixty years later, filling up the park with still more museums was exactly the kind of thing he wanted to prevent.

Over this city's history, there has always been a battle between open land and program, ball fields and green space. There is already a balance in Grant Park. West of Columbus, there's Millennium Park, a great pinball machine of program. East of Columbus, there's Daley Bicentennial Plaza, a rare surviving place of repose among the frenetic activity of Chicago's downtown.

Because Millennium Park is a great success, everyone wants a piece of it. Currently, the Art Institute is constructing a 600 foot long bridge to suck Millennium Park visitors up into its museum. Now, the Chicago Children's Museum is angling to get its own piece of the action. We are told that it's ok because the museum's entrance pavilion is no taller than the Harris Theatre, just as we'll be told that the next structure proposed for the park will be no taller than the entrance pavilion, and so and so on in an endless march of building all the way to lake.

Because Millennium Park is a great success, the temptation is to want to make everything else just like it, but this is a recipe for monotony and disaster.

It is appropriate that the part of Grant Park directly facing the Michigan Avenue streetwall should have the most program, as it mediates between the densely constructed, hyperactive city to the west, and the more pastoral park to the east. It is similarly appropriate that the eastern part of Grant Park, the half closest to the great, defining natural resource of Lake Michigan, should be kept free of construction, with trees, flowers and picturesque landscaping mediating between the built city to the west and the great reserve of nature, the lake, to the east.

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago. And while Daniel Burnham loved to build things (he had wanted to put the Field Museum in Grant Park, but A. Montgomery Ward stopped him) he also had a deeper understanding of the need for unsullied nature as an essential respite to an overbuilt city.

“Both the water front and the near-by woodlands should be brought within easy reach of all the people, and especially of the wage-earners. Natural scenery furnishes the contrasting element to the artificiality of the city. All of us should often run away from the works of men’s hands and back into the wilds, where mind and body are restored to a normal condition, and we are enabled to take up the burden of life in our crowded streets and endless stretches of buildings with renewed vigor and hopefulness.”

All of us, Burnham says. Not just the friends of a private institution, or those paying their admission fee. Not just those with clout, and an insider's sense of entitlement. This is what this battle is about. This is why the Chicago Children's Museum does not belong in Grant Park.

Read Jack's alternative viewpoint in support of the museum.

Join a discussion on this story.

 

lynnbecker@lynnbecker.com

© 2008 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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