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Navy Pier revamp, DePaul arena part of Emanuel ‘tourism and tradeshow’ plan

An artist's renderining DePaul basketball arenhotel part preview city's new Elevate Chicago 'tourism tradeshow infrastructure redevelopment program.'

An artist's renderining of the DePaul basketball arena and hotel, part of preview of city's new Elevate Chicago, a "tourism and tradeshow infrastructure redevelopment program."

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Updated: June 18, 2013 7:45AM

Navy Pier will get a $165 million face-lift that improves its public and entertainment spaces, expands the Children’s Museum and makes the Midwest’s most popular tourist attraction less “cheesy,” as part of a massive redevelopment that includes a 10,000-seat basketball arena near McCormick Place.

A master of media packaging, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is pitching the first installment of what officials hope will be a $278 million remodeling of Navy Pier as part of an ambitious redevelopment of Chicago’s “tourism and tradeshow infrastructure.”

The Navy Pier plan includes two new attractions: An “inter-active” fountain at the entrance known as Gateway Park that could be converted into an ice skating rink in the winter and the long-awaited, $26 million expansion of the Children’s Museum once earmarked for Grant Park.

The redesign of the Pier’s public and commercial spaces in time for the attraction’s centennial anniversary also includes: a dramatic staircase leading to the popular Ferris wheel; 54,000 square feet of additional dining and entertainment space at the east end and changes to the South Dock, South Arcade, Pier Park and Crystal Garden.

“This will create the world-class destination that our city truly deserves,” Navy Pier CEO Marilyn Gardner said of the plan designed by renowned landscape architect James Corner.

“We’re creating much more of a plaza atmosphere out in front in Gateway Park. The South Dock will have a much more engaging atmosphere with a lot more trees. People will be able to get much closer to the water. It truly creates a much more engaging environment. The Pier will feel dramatically different.”

Housing and Economic Development Commissioner Andy Mooney added, “There is kind of a cheesy atmosphere out there. In this first phase, the funds are really getting devoted to the infrastructure — cleaning it up, getting a better entry and making people feel more comfortable in the facility itself. And then, Children’s Museum is putting in $26 million in their facility alone. That will, we think, really be a draw for families.”

By shifting the focus to Navy Pier, the mayor draws attention away from those who have questioned his decision to use public money to bankroll a $173 million basketball arena that would become the new men’s and women’s basketball home of the DePaul Blue Demons.

The arena that would double as an “event center” for mid-sized shows too large for Navy Pier and too small for McCormick Place would be located on a site bounded by Cermak, Prairie, 21st and Indiana.

On the southeast corner will be a boutique hotel with 500 rooms. That’s in addition to the 1,200-room “headquarters hotel” previously announced.

DePaul will contribute $70 million to the new arena and control revenues from the stadium’s concessions, 22 suites and 300 club seats, but only during DePaul games. The nation’s largest Catholic university will also have the exclusive right to name the arena — either for DePaul or for one of the university’s major donors, but not for a corporate sponsor.

The remaining $70 million in construction costs will come from the McPier bond fund, which has resources left over from a 2010 restructuring. McPier bonds are backed by local hotel and motel taxes.

Another $33 million in land costs will be paid for by the surrounding tax-increment-financing district. Some of the land is already in McPier’s control. Other parcels may require use of the city’s sweeping eminent domain powers.

Under the agreement with DePaul, the city would be free to use the arena 24 times a year — either for athletic events involving Chicago Public Schools, Chicago City Colleges or other public events.

A so-called “sky bridge” would connect the arena to McCormick Place West.

Don Welsh, CEO of Choose Chicago, said he anticipates booking the arena for as many as 30 corporate meetings each year that are currently bypassing Chicago because the city lacks a mid-sized event center.

“The mega-shows are more or less committed to Chicago through 2020 in many cases. The interesting growth we’re seeing right now is coming from some of the smaller meetings on the corporate side. This is where we see having this arena,” Welsh said.

“We have found out from a couple of groups that have taken Chicago off their list — they need to have an arena as part of the overall mix. With the United Center a distance [away], it’s sometimes not been an option. To have something like this on the campus is incredibly important as we grow, particularly in the corporate segment.”

Equally important to Welsh is the mayor’s plan to develop Motor Row as an entertainment district within walking distance of the convention center campus.

“If you sit there and talk to customers, we hear that the infrastructure around McCormick is weak as compared to other cities. This is gonna go a long way to rectify” that, he said.

In 2006, a Toronto-based consultant unveiled its grand plan for a new Navy Pier.

It called for a monorail system spanning the length of the Pier and a spokeless Ferris wheel modeled after the one that debuted at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

With two floating parking structures shaped like military boats, the plan would have nearly doubled the 1,700 parking spaces now serving Navy Pier. Forrec Ltd. also envisioned a 900-seat theater, a nautical floating hotel and a “Great Lakes”-themed indoor water park with entry fees in the $15 to $30 range.

Compared to that ambitious plan, Emanuel’s version looks a bit underwhelming.

But, it’s a start.

The plan for two new hotels and a 10,000-seat arena has fueled speculation about a casino in the area.

Consultants hired to plan for the old Michael Reese Hospital site nearby — acquired by the city for $91 million to house an Olympic Village — recently recommended a casino as one possibility for that site.

On Wednesday, top mayoral aides were tight-lipped about the possibility.

“We have no plans for this immediate area for the casino,” Mooney said. “The first thing is to get some legislation … If we get legislation, then we’ll figure it out.”

Deputy Mayor Steve Koch added, “To be determined.”

Mooney pushed back against those who have questioned the wisdom of using public money to build an arena anchored by a tenant that plays 18 games a season and is decades removed from its heyday as a college basketball powerhouse.

“I look at it quite different. This is a true example of a public-private partnership where we’re attracting private investment toward a public facility,” he said.

“They’re using it for 18 days a year — more, hopefully, if they have championships as well as for some of their other sports. Then, we are able to take advantage of it as the public for the rest of the year. That’s largely for trade show use, assemblies and other ways of promoting the convention business.”

Koch added, “An arena like this adds to the capacity in Chicago for other kinds of events — sporting, entertainment events.”

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