Plan commission approves museum move

May 15, 2008 8:51:36 PM PDT
The controversial plan to move the Chicago children's museum to Grant Park took a step closer at city hall Thursday.On Thursday, people on both sides of the issue showed up to voice their opinions.

The matter of the museum was before the city's planning commission. It was approved just before 11 p.m. in a marathon meeting that included a lengthy public comment section.

In highly charged council chambers, the two opposing sides on the children's museum debate dug in, hoping to convince planning commission members to their side. The arguments were familiar.

"We have the opportunity to replace a crumbling concrete bunker with a stunning example of our city's commitment to children, embracing one of Chicago's greatest assets, Grant Park," said a move supporter.

"In 172 years, there has been zero exceptions to the dedication restrictions that have been challenged in court. That's a lot to say, isn't it? No exceptions," said an opponent

The audience was filled with activists as well as Grant Park neighbors.

"I think the opponents have been vocal but we've also enjoyed an overwhelming level of support," said Jennifer Farrington, Chicago Children's Museum.

Chicago Mayor Rickard Daley is backing the plan. Most of those opposed to moving the children's museum live near the proposed site in Grant Park. They are led by Alderman Brendan Reilly.

At least 300 people signed up to speak about the proposal. More than five hours after the public comment section began, more than 170 people were estimated to have spoken at night's end, with about one-third of the original 300 leaving.

Over the years, there have been four Illinois state Supreme Court decisions that have essentially prohibited development in Grant Park. But the planning commission has members who are appointed by the mayor. And it is because of that fact that many feel it was a foregone conclusion that members of the planning commission would approve this project.

"They will consider all of the facts and arguments that we lay out. But yes, the odds are this will be approved today," said Reilly, 42nd Ward.

And there were a lot of people to be heard from Thursday. Hundreds started gathering to fill out forms allowing them to speak for up to three minutes on this proposal - a Chicago Park District-supported redesign to sink a new 37,000 square-foot children's museum into a parking garage and field house that now occupies this spot in Grant Park.

"This new design will bring people much greater access into that portion of Grant Park. It creates more green space and will be a real positive change," said Paula Khan, children's museum board member.

The planning commission heard from proponents first before tackling the job of making the microphone available to interested citizens who packed the Chicago city council chambers and balcony.

With buttons and t-shirts to signify which side of the debate they were on, opponents especially were vocal heading in. Many said no matter how pretty the artistic renderings and soaring the promises of a world-class facility, Grant Park cannot be the site of a new building, especially one that houses an operation charging admission.

"The design is a little less illegal than the other four. It's still completely illegal. It's still a private institution on public land that would charge admission. It is still a building. It has windows. It has terraces. It has a roof. Parks don't have those things. Buildings do," said Peggy Fiekel, Save Grant Park.

With more than 300 people waiting to speak at three minutes apiece, that would have meant 900 minutes, or 15 hours. And the planning commission says they wanted to hear from everybody who wanted to have a say.

The proposal now goes to the zoning committee for the city of Chicago. That meeting is June 5. It could be voted on by the entire city council as early as the next council meeting June 11.

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