A New Navy Pier: Why Chicagoans and Tourists Can’t Miss a Visit This Summer

Fireworks at Chicago's Navy Pier

If you haven’t been to Navy Pier in a few years — perhaps since the last time you brought out-of-town visitors there — you might be surprised to find a bounty of new restaurants, shops and green spaces, as well as the recently opened Centennial Wheel, a 196-foot Ferris wheel that is 50 feet taller than its predecessor and offers views of Chicago guaranteed to inspire awe in even the most jaded city dwellers.

Centennial Wheel at Chicago's Navy Pier
Centennial Wheel (Photo courtesy of Navy Pier.)

The installation of the new Ferris wheel is part of the so-called “Centennial Vision,” a multi-faceted plan to revamp Navy Pier in conjunction with its 100th anniversary. Implementation of the $155 million Centennial Vision began in fall 2013, and includes six key projects:

  • Development of a boutique hotel on the pier
  • Conversion of the South Arcade into a Chicago-themed food experience
  • Addition of more “authentically Chicago” retail and restaurants in the Family Pavilion
  • Creation of added green spaces and more public water and art features
  • Improvement of connections between the interior of the building and the South Dock
  • Enhancement of entertainment options that showcase the vibrant music and performing arts scenes in Chicago

The revitalization of the pier is being implemented with an eye toward sustainability, including the addition of native plant and tree groves, and improved infrastructure that will reduce the flow of untreated storm water and sediment to the Chicago River.

The primary goal of the Centennial Vision, says Navy Pier, Inc., President and CEO Marilynn Gardner, is to transform what has historically been viewed as primarily a tourist attraction into a highly relevant destination that keeps locals coming back on a regular basis — to grab a drink before a play, catch a live musical performance, enjoy a top-notch meal, see a hot new art exhibit or simply to take a stroll while admiring the Chicago skyline.

“It all goes back to creating a more authentic Chicago experience,” Gardner says. “We are bringing what you would find in the neighborhoods here to the pier.”

Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier
Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Photo by James Steinkamp.)

One of the new spots for cocktails and food expected to open at Navy Pier this summer is Tiny Tavern, an outpost of popular Lincoln Square watering hole Tiny Lounge. Mark Johnson, managing partner of Tiny Lounge, says the push to make Navy Pier more reflective of the “real Chicago” appealed to him.

“This is an opportunity to be a part of the rebuilding of such an iconic space, and it’s an opportunity to grow our brand,” he says.

Floor-to-ceiling windows will provide views of the pier and Lake Michigan from tables at the new Tiny Tavern. Johnson says diners can expect craft cocktails, local beers, an eclectic wine list and a food menu that incorporates popular dishes from Tiny Lounge, as well as new offerings.

The revitalization of Navy Pier is linked to its transition from what Gardner calls a “quasi-government agency” to nonprofit in 2011. In 2010, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) commissioned a study by the Urban Land Institute to evaluate the future of Navy Pier based on realistic assumptions of available public and private capital. The MPEA recommended the formation of Navy Pier, Inc., a nonprofit that would manage the pier and oversee its redevelopment, while MPEA retained ownership of the land. Gardner says that Lincoln Park Zoo, which operates in a similar manner, served as an example for Navy Pier.

“We can no longer rely on public dollars to ensure that the pier remains relevant,” Gardner says. “Now, as a nonprofit, we can rely on philanthropic support.”

Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Courtyard Theater at Navy Pier
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater (Photo by James Steinkamp.)

In 2014, Navy Pier received its largest-ever single private donation — a $20 million legacy gift from the Polk Bros. Foundation. Those funds will support the redevelopment of the pier’s 13-acre entrance, which is one of the central elements of the Centennial Vision. The new-and-improved park, which has been renamed Polk Bros. Park, is anchored by a public fountain that opened over Memorial Day weekend. During the winter months, the fountain will be converted into an ice rink. The main promenade connecting Navy Pier with the city will also be widened, and will feature new amenities like bicycle rentals. Next summer, two performance spaces will be added to the southern end of Polk Bros. Park, where people will be able to take in live arts and culture events against the backdrop of the lake and the skyline.

Polk Bros. Park at Chicago's Navy Pier
Polk Bros. Park (Photo courtesy of Navy Pier.)

The Polk Bros. Foundation is the third-largest funder of Chicago nonprofits. It was founded in 1988 to continue the charitable giving tradition of the Polk family, who operated the iconic Chicago chain of Polk Bros. retail furniture and appliance stores for 55 years. Today, the Polk Bros. Foundation gives $20-$25 million annually to 350-400 Chicago nonprofits.

Polk Bros. Foundation CEO Sandra Guthman, who is the daughter of co-founder Samuel Polk, says the foundation decided to make a significant gift to Navy Pier in order to commemorate the Polk family and its business. The last Polk Bros. store closed in 1992, so many younger Chicagoans aren’t familiar with the business that used to be a household name. Guthman says this investment in Navy Pier is a way to keep her family’s legacy alive, and to further the foundation’s mission to make arts and culture accessible in Chicago.

“We chose the park in front of (and part of) Navy Pier because it is to be a wonderful and exciting open space accessible to all,” Guthman says. “We envision the performance lawns being used to bring performances by many of Chicago’s talented, smaller arts organizations to a wide audience of Chicagoans who might otherwise not have an opportunity to have those experiences.”

In addition to enhancing the park at Navy Pier’s entrance, the funding from Polk Bros. is also being used to revitalize arts and cultural programming at the pier. To that end, Navy Pier has brought on Steve Abrams to serve as guest artistic director. Abrams is a veteran of Chicago’s theater industry, and has deep relationships with many of the city’s performing arts organizations.

Abrams, along with Navy Pier’s staff, is working with more than 600 artists and performing arts organizations to schedule unique programming that appeals to tourists and locals alike. Beginning in July, for instance, Chicago Fitness Formula Clubs will offer a stroller fitness class at the pier. In August, Navy Pier will host the 10th annual Chicago Dancing Festival, featuring the Trinity Irish Dancers, Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Muntu Dance Theater and others. [See a calendar of selected summer events at Navy Pier below].

“The strategy that we are using is really to send a message that the pier is transforming and is a place for all of Chicago’s artists and cultural organizations,” Abrams says. “Yes, we are going to do things on Saturdays in the summer, but also on Tuesday nights in February, when the pier is under-attended. We want to embrace the natural resources — the sky, land, water and the most mesmerizing views of the city that you can’t get anywhere else.”

What’s New at Navy Pier

Centennial Wheel

Measuring almost 200 feet, Navy Pier’s new Ferris wheel offers some of the most mesmerizing views of Chicago. Temperature-controlled gondolas provide comfortable rides for up to 180 people at a time. For a special treat, time your ride on the Ferris wheel with the Wednesday or Saturday summer fireworks shows.

New Restaurants

One of the biggest draws to Navy Pier is the expanded selection of restaurants. With the goal of creating an elevated dining experience that is more “authentically Chicago,” several eateries have been added, including Ben & Jerry’s, Big Bowl Chinese Express, Big City Chicken, DMK Burger Bar and Fish Bar, Frankie’s Pizza by the Slice, Freshii,Goddess and the Baker, Original Rainbow Cone, Porkchop BBQ and Snow Dragon Shavery. Coming soon is Tiny Tavern, a new spot for craft cocktails and food by the people behind Lincoln Square’s Tiny Lounge.

Renovated South Dock

Lake pavilions on the South Dock have been installed to provide prime views of Lake Michigan (without the commercial clutter that was there before). You’ll also find oversized benches made from reclaimed wood and recycled steel that will beckon you to sit, relax and enjoy the views.

Polk Bros. Park

Navy Pier’s 13-acre entrance park is undergoing a makeover, thanks to a legacy gift from the Polk Bros. Foundation. On hot days, little ones won’t be able to resist splashing in the 12,500-square-foot Polk Bros. Fountain, which features 250 programmable jets. The fountain will be converted into an ice rink in the winter. Next summer, look for two new performance spaces for live arts and culture events.

Wave Wall Stair

Navy Pier’s iconic Wave Wall has been upgraded with a new curved staircase that serves as a gathering space and connects the South Dock to Pier Park. The Wave Wall Stair is visually captivating, and also serves as a functional amphitheater.

Uber and Lyft Pick-Up Points

Getting to and from Navy Pier just got a whole lot easier, thanks to designated spots to meet your rideshare driver.

Summer 2016 Events at Navy Pier

Looking for a great reason to check out the new-and-improved Navy Pier? Then mark your calendar for some of the coolest happenings at the pier this summer. Click here for more details about each event.

Weekly Pier Dance

July 7 to Sept. 22

Grab a partner and dance under the open skies, with mesmerizing views of the water and skyline. The weekly event will feature both live and recorded music.

Stroller Derby

9-10 a.m., Wednesdays beginning July 6

No need to get a sitter just to sneak in a workout. Bring your little ones (and their strollers) along for an outdoor exercise class that incorporates cardio, strength training and resistance bands.

Rush Hour Fitness

6-7 p.m, alternating Mondays beginning July 11

Get fit with a different sort of happy hour. On alternating Mondays, Fitness Formula Club will offer signature classes like Zumba and Werq Fitness! at Navy Pier.

Beatbox Limited

1 p.m., July 16

International sensation Yuri Lane (a.k.a, the harmonica beatbox man) hosts a day of performances by incredible human beatboxers.

Chicago Dancing Festival

5:30-7:30 p.m., Aug. 26

The 10th annual Chicago Dancing Festival will appear for the first time at Navy Pier. The program, entitled “Planet Chicago,” features global-inspired dance troupes like the Natya Dance Ensemble, Trinity Irish Dancers, Muntu Dance Theater, Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Ensemble Español and Forward Momentum Chicago.

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