The Fight to save Navy Pier’s Crystal Gardens
Aaron Carlson, MBA MSEd.
Ioanna Kekatos, MA.
In this special investigative episode, we speak with Celine Wysgalla, the Chicago resident who formed a now viral petition to save the Crystal Gardens, a free indoor botanical garden located on the famous Navy Pier. Plus, we discuss the muddied political history of Navy Pier that she found as wild as we did.
With almost 20,000 signatures in just a matter of days, it would appear it is only the beginning of the fight to save the Crystal Gardens, currently slated to be replaced by Illuminarium, a completely virtual attraction that utilizes footage and CGI from places like an African Safari and Outer Space to transport visitors elsewhere. While the Crystal Gardens remains one of the only free attractions at Navy Pier, its replacement will cost you approximately $30-50 per visit based on pricing from Illuminarium's other nationwide locations. Construction is slated to begin next year if all goes according to plan.
Opponents of the closure cite the increasingly important mental and emotional health benefits of green space as a reason to keep it open and say the replacement of the gardens by an attraction that is completely devoid of any real nature, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic, is “dystopian”. Further, Celine noted in our interview that she asked Navy Pier what they planned to do with the trees and plants from the gardens and got no answers.
The move is seen by Navy Pier as being part of their longer-term strategic plan for financial longevity and modernization. In a statement released to us by Navy Pier Inc, they stated the space is currently "underutilized" and that "as a nongovernmental nonprofit, Navy Pier Inc. (NPI) manages one of the Midwest’s top destinations within a business framework that provides for its long-term financial stability. It’s incumbent upon the organization to develop attractions that support the maintenance, viability and programmatic offerings of Navy Pier and generate dollars for the local economy, including the nearly 70 tenant businesses on the Pier, which create more than 3,000 local jobs. Illuminarium will help us continue to fulfill that mission, allowing the Pier to remain free and open to the public".
If you're shaking your head that Navy Pier is actually a not-for-profit organization, then you're having the same reaction we did.
Did you know that in 2011 Navy Pier was spun off from direct governmental ownership, infused with millions in taxpayer dollars, and left to operate independent of taxpayer accountability as an independent organization. While becoming a non-profit might sound nice, it leaves us feeling uneasy. In true Chicago political fashion, Navy Pier was owned pre-2011 by the MPEA, a municipal corporation set up by the Illinois General Assembly to attract conventions and other events to the City and State. MPEA has had its fair share of scandals though, including the now infamous bid rigging and patronage scandals involving former Illinois Governor George Ryan and a 50-million dollar gray area financial allocation to Navy Pier by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration. The reasons given for spinning Navy Pier off in 2011 primarily revolved around the fact that Navy Pier is a huge operation with an annual operating budget of $50+ million and needed its own team and strategy to fully modernize and grow into the future.
What this did though is close the door to FOIA requests and the ability of the public to have access to important financial and operational data and decision-making rational. The BGA has been suing for years to subject Navy Pier to more detailed financial transparency but has continually lost in court. The kicker here is that the MPEA (a government-owned, taxpayer funded corporation) has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting to keep Navy Pier shielded from further oversight, and that does not included how much Navy Pier has spent since they legally do not have to disclose those records.
Our point is this. What was once owned by the Illinois and Chicago taxpayer was infused with a start-up investment of taxpayer money, left to operate without taxpayer oversight, and continues to fight against further transparency. That leaves us feeling soured. Not only do they not want increased informational access for residents, they are actively fighting against it in court. To us, that's more representative of something you would see done by a large oil company rather than a local non-profit that was funded by taxpayers. And at the end of the day, if Navy Pier failed or needed a bailout, who would be responsible? The MPEA. Which means you, the taxpayer.
So, if the residents of Chicago will not get further transparency from Navy Pier, at least allow the taxpayers to be a part of the decision-making process. If the petition grows and the public wants to keep the gardens, then move the virtual reality experience elsewhere on the pier. Utilize the now closed AMC theatre or another underutilized space. But don't mess with access to free greenspace. And don't justify it by telling us you've created more parks around the pier to replace it.
We don't want a replacement- we want to save the crystal gardens.
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The Research (David Greising)
The Original Article on the Petition