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A bright idea: City aims to light up architecture to boost tourism

Renderings provided by city show concepts lighting project along river 'whmay be possible out international competition'.

Renderings provided by the city show concepts of the lighting project along the river and "what may be possible out of the international competition".

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Updated: February 24, 2014 1:13PM

Chicago would be turned into a Midwest version of Paris — La Ville Lumiere, the City of Light — under a mayoral plan showcased Wednesday to boost tourism by spotlighting the city’s architectural wonders.

Even as his Infrastructure Trust launches a $13 million plan to make 60 government buildings more energy-efficient, Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to use a spectacular citywide light show to accomplish a new and 10 percent higher goal of attracting 55 million annual visitors by 2020.

It will start with an “international design competition” that invites teams of artists, architects, engineers and designers to envision ways to light up Chicago’s “buildings, parks, roads and open spaces.”

The soon-to-be transformed downtown riverwalk will be Ground Zero for the year-round light show. But the spotlight will ultimately extend beyond the downtown area into Chicago neighborhoods.

“It will make nighttime in Chicago an experience unto itself. It will make us North America’s city of lights. People will come from far and wide to see what we’ve done and enjoy our city,” Emanuel told a clout-heavy audience at the Museum of Science and Industry.

The light-up Chicago initiative is being spearheaded by Lou Raizin, president of Broadway in Chicago.

If artists, architects and engineers “work together as teams,” Raizin said he’s certain they will find ways to use Chicago’s world-renowned architecture, the city’s iconic bridges, Lower Wacker and the river itself as a “canvas” to “imagine lighting in a unique and different” way.

“It’s about creating a spectacle that winds up allowing us to be sensitive to the assets that we have, but making a pivot that takes the old guard to the vanguard. It’s not just washing a building with light. It’s about creating theater. It’s about engaging. It’s not just color. It’s three-dimensional. It’s really creating events in light,” Raizin said.

“We’re a world-class city that the majority of the world doesn’t know about. It’s things like this that will differentiate Chicago and create a conversation about Chicago that’s heard around the world. Our objective is really to extend the day into day into night. If we can engage the tourists and the travelers for more hours outside, it’s more [money] spent.”

Raizin said the cash-strapped city has “absolutely” agreed to help foot the bill for the year-round lighting initiative.

Pressed on where the money would come from, he said, “Let’s see what that bill is. Once we know what the bill is and we understand the impact, we understand how to solve that problem. ... It’s premature to talk numbers until we understand design and the economic reward.”

Don Welsh, president and CEO of the tourism agency known as Choose Chicago, acknowledged that lighting alone will not be enough to attract 55 million visitors by 2020, up from 47 million in 2013.

“We’re going to need some of the big festivals that may be in other parts of the world. Or we’re going to create some new ones,” Welsh said, pointing to a planned, citywide celebration of the Chinese New Year.

“Look at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Look at some of the other festivals that take place around the world that really focus on arts and culture. We have tremendous assets here in Chicago. We’re looking at different things that we can get into to promote the arts here.”

Welsh said he’s also exploring the possibility of creating a “winter sports festival” that would attract amateur sporting events during a slow season certain to get even slower because of Chicago’s frigid and snowy winter.


Twitter: @fspielman

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