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Peggy Denny, 58, born and raised in Chicago, had to stop midway across the BP Bridge when she realized Grant Park was missing its trees. She said she was optimistic about the park's future.

Grant Park looks ugly for the holidays, but redesign aims for a natural wonderland

by Tara Kadioglu
Nov 20, 2012


Tara Kadioglu/MEDILL

Grant Park looks naked without its trees. Thanks to a leaky garage, the city decided to give it a facelift, with the most visible change so far happening right before Thanksgiving.

Tara Kadioglu/MEDILL

Landscape architect Matt Urbanski talks about his vision for Maggie Daley Park.

Last week’s tree plucking of northern Grant Park, marked the most drastic change so far in a planned $55 million reconstruction, baring the unfamiliar epidermis of a park that once was.

With 877 trees missing, the park looks stark and unfamiliar—unwelcoming for the holiday season, and a bit of a surprise for visitors who haven’t visited in awhile. But the muddy expanses littered with orange cones, pickup trucks and construction equipment will lead to a colorful landscape ornamented with 1,000 new trees, local prairie plants, a rock-climbing wall and more.

Silver-haired Peggy Denny, 58, strolled up the sun-struck stainless steel Frank Gehry-designed BP Bridge. The bridge connects Millennium Park to Grant Park. But halfway across, traffic buzzing beneath, her smile wiped away as she was suddenly confounded.

A giant orange sign covering a chain-link fence said, “Bridge Closed.”

“I was trying to cross the bridge but obviously I didn’t make it,” she said with a chuckle. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

The bridge was blocked for the reconstruction that will transform the space into Maggie Daley Park, named to honor Chicago’s late former first lady. Daley died of cancer on Thanksgiving last year making this a week to honor her memory with continued construction.

It is tough timing for Amy Iams, too, who said holidays often brought her to the park — but this year is already different.

“Not having the beautiful scenery is kind of a disappointment,” the Bucktown resident said. “You would think with the winter coming on, it’s probably going to be more difficult to get moving on the project.”

Like Denny, Algis Vasonis also stood atop the bridge’s center this week, hypnotized by the harsh scene. But unlike Denny, Vasonis was snapping photos during a lunch break from his nearby office.

He said when he looked out his window this week, compared to last week it was “completely different.”
“Right now it looks pretty barren,” he said. “It looks very odd.”

Trees will not return until project completion. The park reopens to the public in winter 2014, with final plantings in spring 2015.

The redesign will transform the park from “mostly a visual amenity” to a highly interactive “dreamy landscape” where “kids want to go back because of the nature,” said the project’s designer Matt Urbanski, of New York landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.

This includes an ice-skating ribbon through trees, multi-generational rock-climbing wall, an “enchanted forest” of local trees, and Illinois prairie plants, Urbanski said.

The old park did not include interactive elements beyond tennis courts, a small playground and a nearby ice rink.
Urbanski said the design needed to evolve with what he calls “the modern condition of parks, which is that people want to do a lot of things in them now.”

“People don’t want only a passive experience in the park,” he said. “A lot of people like to sit on the bench and watch the birds. But there’s this interesting thing happening in the kind of activities people want in a park that goes beyond traditional recreation.”

“There’s even an element of risk that people want designed into a park,” he continued, pointing to the rock-climbing.

When Denny learned of the rock-climbing wall, her face lit up.

“Oh, cool!” she said. “I’m all for that.”

Urbanski said his firm knew what people like Denny wanted from this park and others by holding public meetings for feedback. But he said this outreach expanded farther than usual.

“To visit more neighborhoods was the Park District’s idea,” he said. “Because Grant Park, they feel, is everybody’s park, not just a neighborhood park.”

Denny, born and raised in Chicago, said the park was a big part of her upbringing. But she doesn’t mind the changes.

“I have a lot of nostalgia for the way things might have been before,” she said. But, “I’m really impressed at how well the changes in the Millennium Park area have been done. And I’m hopeful that it looks as though they’ll extend that kind of sensibility out this way.”

Urbanski said the additions of Millennium Park and the BP Bridge, which made the area more social and family-friendly, did indeed influence his design.
The redesign is about “suspending disbelief and having a kind of imaginative play experience, and expanding that sense of awe to not just children but adults too,” he said.
The design embraces Maggie Daley’s love of children, said her husband, Chicago’s former mayor, Richard M. Daley, at an August press conference:

“This great park will be a reflection of Maggie’s love and affection for all of our children.”