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A Park for the Ages

Mil1According to Wikipedia, Anish Kapoor’s contract to create the popular sculpture, Cloud Gate (more commonly known as the “Bean”) for Millennium Park, stated that the constructed piece should be expected to survive for 1,000 years.  Even the name for the park reflects a longevity that is visionary – and forever – as it approaches its tenth anniversary.

I recently caught up with Ed Uhlir, Executive Director for Millennium Park, Inc. (MP, Inc.), to talk with him about lessons learned at the Park and what has surprised him about its success.  “The biggest thing is that it turned out to be such a huge economic engine for the city,” he said. Uhlir recognized the importance of high quality design in creating real estate value but he’s not sure anyone would have predicted the size of the impact that Millennium Park has had.  A 2011 Texas A&M report on the impact of the park tells us,

…it is clear that Millennium Park has generated the following economic impact on the City of Chicago: $490M in total park construction; $ 2.45 Billion in new construction near the park; 70,070 direct, indirect and induced jobs created by new construction in the area; a 57% increase in new residential units near the park (3,587 units since 2005); 29% premium on park units sold with views of the park; five million annual visitors which generate $1.29B in tourism dollars; $5.9M in annual operations costs that feed the local economy; 2,126 new underground parking spaces at Millennium Park; an 11% increase in hotel rooms (751 rooms) near the park; $173.5M donated by 115 founders to specific projects within the park; and 11 fortune 500 companies that donated to the park.

How did that happen?  Ed says, “It’s the world-class art and design.  It has branded the park and added value to the image of Chicago.”  And, I would add, it represents the kind of success that results from effective leadership and a strong public/private partnership. “The private partnership enabled us with flexibility and the ability to be more selective in getting great design.”

One of the things that the Millennium Park planners did so well was to incorporate great art and design that gives the park a sense of beauty beyond its landscaping and gardens.  The challenge now is to continually position the park as cutting edge, with more creative contributors.  “We do have new ‘beans’ every couple of years,” said Ed.  The formal Boeing Galleries in the Park – two outdoor galleries designed for public exhibitions – are a home for changing shows of contemporary art.  Every two years a new show is staged, generally from an artist outside the United States.

Mil2
And Millennium Park continues to expand its brand by making connections to the properties around it.  The elegant Nichols Bridgeway leads south to the new addition of the Art Institute.  East of the Park, and across Frank Gehry’s BP Bridge over Columbus Drive, there are plans for transforming Daley Bicentennial Park into Maggie Daley Park, a thirty-acre park and children’s play space, with a better connection to the city’s lakefront.

The increase in surrounding property values and the creation of new jobs is one important gauge of the park’s success, but just as important has been the impact the park has had on tourism.  One interesting measure for this, says Ed, is Trip Advisor.  There are over 2,600 reviews for the Park on Trip Advisor, with almost all of them calling their visit “excellent” or “very good.”  Ninety-eight reviewers called their Millennium Park experience “average.”  Out of curiosity, I checked out Trip Advisor reviews for a few other signature parks around the country: New York attractions take the cake with the High Line receiving 5,300 positive reviews, and Central Park has over 12,000 reviews; Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle has 152 reviews; and Discovery Green in Houston has 60 reviews.

With park visitation up to 5 million annually, the City of Chicago is focusing on its “brand” across the country and world and is opening tourism offices with one of their pitches being, “Come visit Millennium Park.”  Foreign visitors are the fastest growing group of visitors and – though still a small number in comparison to local and regional visitors – they spend more money.

Ed believes that in addition to great art and design, great programming is what brings people to the park, which hosts over 600 free events annually.  “There are lots of opportunities in this small space and everything is free thanks to donors who sponsor many of the programs,” he says.  But there is a potential conflict between donors who made gifts and wanted everything to be free for park users, and the city which needs to balance its budget to keep the programs running.  Endowments, not just for the art but for programs, are now a key part of fundraising.

MP, Inc. currently has $25 million in restricted and unrestricted endowments (not including a $10 million pledge for the outdoor concert pavilion).  Their goal is to double that.  “The private-public partnership is important to making the park work and endowment money helps assure that the partnership continues into the future.”

Half of the board of MP, Inc. is original to when work on the park began in 1996.  Some of them feel like they have accomplished what they set out to do and are ready to move on.  Now, younger family members of original donors are joining the board as membership diversifies from those who built it to those who are committed to enhancing it.  Program endowments – such as the one from McDonalds to manage the Cycle Center and present free morning exercise programs, or Boeing’s endowment of the outdoor art gallery – are increasingly important to keeping the park successful through high quality programs.

When the park opened, The Financial Times described Millennium Park as “…a genuinely 21st-century interactive park [that] could trigger a new way of thinking about public outdoor spaces.”  These days Millennium Park is as much a venue for driving economic impact in the city as it is a respite from the tall, dark skyscrapers that surround it.  Keeping the park vibrant will require the same kind of focus on excellence that made it a success.  Like a museum, the Park will have to manage its art and attractions to keep them fresh – and cutting edge – in order to keep people coming and driving its economic impact.  And that will take new and committed public-private partnerships for managing the park for the next 1,000 years that Cloud Gate shines.

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog, she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.

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3 Responses

  1. [...] A Park for the Ages | Kathy Blaha | City Parks Blog Kathy looks at the lessons learned as it approaches its tenth anniversary. [...]

  2. [...] A Park for the Ages | Kathy Blaha | City Parks Blog Kathy looks at the lessons learned as it approaches its tenth anniversary. [...]

  3. [...] A Park for the Ages | Kathy Blaha | City Parks Blog Kathy looks at the lessons learned as it approaches its tenth anniversary. [...]

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