New plan calls for Navy Pier, McCormick Place revamp, DePaul arena

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is expected to unveil Thursday a $173 million plan to build a 10,000-seat arena for the DePaul Blue Demons next to McCormick Place, couching it as part of a broader blueprint for boosting tourism, much of it to be publicly funded.

The program, dubbed “Elevate Chicago,” includes development of two hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues surrounding the convention center; the long-awaited launch of a redesign at the Navy Pier lakefront entertainment complex; and reconfiguration of a congested section of the lakefront bike path from just south of the Chicago River north to Oak Street beach — a project known as the Navy Pier Flyover.

Many of these projects have been announced previously, but funding plans now are falling into place for some of them. On the Navy Pier project, public funding for the first phase will be nearly double what was originally pledged.

“Establishing the McCormick Place entertainment district along with the redevelopment of Navy Pier is a vital step in tapping the full potential of the city of Chicago,” Emanuel said in a statement.

The publicly supported arena, which is expected to book corporate and convention assemblies, concerts, and civic and school events, is likely to be the most controversial part of the plan.

A neighborhood organization already vows a fight, fearing it will turn out to be a mostly unused hulk that fails to liven up street life in the neighborhood. Ald. Robert Fioretti, whose 2nd Ward includes the convention center area, questioned putting public money behind a facility that will benefit a private party.

“The emails I’ve received are saying, what about the lack of police, what about the closure of schools?” he said. “The public is not going to go for using public money unless it is strictly justified.”

City and convention officials said Wednesday that the arena, which will be paired with a privately developed 500-room hotel and street-level restaurants and bars, as well as a nearby 1,200-room, $400 million convention hotel to be developed and owned by the agency that owns McCormick Place, will enliven the now-dormant area, create jobs and attract more convention business.

The project will provide “the kind of critical mass that allows a neighborhood to really start accelerating and take off,” Deputy Mayor Steve Koch said during a briefing on the plans. The ultimate architectural designs will be submitted to a public review process, he said.

He declined to estimate how many days per year the arena would be in use, noting there would be a ramp-up period. But city officials noted that DePaul University will pay rent and that they expect the center to break even.

DePaul declined to comment ahead of Thursday’s formal announcement.

The plan calls for the city to provide $33 million in special taxing district funds to buy the land necessary for the arena project, slated for the 200 block of East Cermak Road. The project would be connected by sky bridge to the convention center’s newest facility, the West Building.

The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the state-city agency that owns McCormick Place and Navy Pier, will contribute $70 million toward construction from its bond fund, which is supported by hotel taxes, while DePaul will contribute another $70 million.

The city will need to get state legislative approval to extend the life of the area’s tax increment financing district, which expires at year-end, and to allow the use of McCormick Place bond funds to be used for future projects, Koch said. He said he hopes the authorization can be achieved in the current session in Springfield.

The city’s plan has caught the eye of Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens, whose Allstate Arena currently hosts Blue Demons basketball.

Stephens made it clear in Springfield that any legislative incentive package that moves forward should include provisions to boost Rosemont tourism, which he described as a major economic engine for Illinois. “We just want to be included in the mix,” Stephens said.

John Kaatz, a principal with consulting firm Conventions, Sports & Leisure, said the arena could help Chicago attract medical events that often hold large general sessions.

But University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson said sports arenas historically have not been good fits with convention centers, noting that convention organizers look for spaces configured to their own needs.

“The Chicago Cubs are the only game in town that actually has significant economic impact on the city,” he said. “If Rahm Emanuel wants to spend $100 million to stimulate economic development and tax revenues, he ought to just give it to the Cubs.”

In another aspect of the Elevate Chicago program, a team led by landscape architect James Corner, who co-designed New York’s High Line elevated park, has developed plans for the first phase of a Navy Pier redesign, which will be unveiled in detail at a separate news conference Friday.

The first phase of the $278 million redevelopment is expected to cost $166 million, with the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority picking up $115 million, nearly double the $60 million it originally pledged as seed money. The Chicago Children’s Museum is expected to spend $26 million on an expansion there, and an additional $35 million in private restaurant investment is called for as well.

Work will begin next fall to redesign the south dock promenade area as well as the entranceway park, adding a fountain that will change into a skating rink in winter. The indoor retail area also will be modernized.

Navy Pier Inc., the not-for-profit that took over management of the pier in 2011, has been aiming for corporate sponsorships and private donations to help with the remake. But Marilynn Gardner, its CEO, said that will be more feasible in the second phase, where “crowning jewels,” such as a dramatic park at the east end, will be added.

Donors would be more interested in these sorts of projects, she said, rather than more mundane aspects, such as paving stones on the south deck.

Plans for an elevated bike path to ease bottlenecks on the city’s 18-mile lakefront trail were announced two years ago, but federal funding is now committed for the $48 million project, city officials said.

-Chicago Tribune Reporting

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