Left: Kevin Gujral, Ed Uhlir, and Jim Conrath stand in front of what may be the most recognizable part of the park: the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Right: The Crown Fountain projects faces of Chicagoans, who “spit” water on passers-by. The fountains attract children to play in the shallow water.
Photos: Larry Evans/Black Star Left: Kevin Gujral, Ed Uhlir, and Jim Conrath stand in front of what may be the most recognizable part of the park: the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Right: The Crown Fountain projects faces of Chicagoans, who “spit” water on passers-by. The fountains attract children to play in the shallow water.

Chicago's Millennium Park is a different sort of public works project. Though the park is now owned and operated by the city, many of the attractions were paid for by private donations—some of them in the multimillion-dollar range. And the park is really five separate structures—two underground garages, an enclosed music and dance theater, a music pavilion stage and production facility to serve outdoor audiences, and a rail crossover structure. Visitors and public works departments alike scratch their heads and ask. “How did they do that?” when they visit this marvel along Chicago's lakefront.

The story starts many years ago, before the current design was a glimmer in Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley's eye. The space was an eyesore in a high-profile location—surrounded by main thoroughfares, nestled between historic skyscrapers and the city's famous art museum, it was being used as an Illinois Central Railroad rail yard and 800-car gravel parking lot. With its east side facing Lake Michigan, the spot cried out for an innovative solution.

Mayor Daley had lofty plans for this spot. Following along with Daniel Burnham's vision of “a city in a park.” in 1997 Daley directed his staff to develop plans for a new music venue to be built over the active tracks and parking lot. The park was first conceived in 1998, and with the mayor's vision and the designers' involvement, a park design was born.

In 2000, nearly two years after work began, the city transferred responsibility for the project to the Public Building Commission of Chicago (PBC). “When the project was first transferred to the PBC in May 2000, I was the PBC's director of construction and also the project manager for the Grant Park North Garage reconstruction project,” said Kevin Gujral, then executive director of the PBC, now the deputy chief of staff for infrastructure in Mayor Daley's office. “The PBC acted as the owner/developer of Millennium Park for the city of Chicago from May 2000 until project completion,” he said.

Before the PBC was brought in, the mayor asked Millennium Park's director of planning, architecture, and landscape, Ed Uhlir, FAIA, to review the design plan and construct the necessary elements. “The original plan was old-fashioned,” said Uhlir, referring to the 1998 16-acre project envisioned for the space, which evolved into the 24 1/2 acres eventually built. “We had several design changes, especially when we started dealing with the private donors.”

These private donors are what changed Millennium Park into an urban garden combined with a work of art. The final design enlisted world-renowned artists, architects, planners, and landscape architects including Frank Gehry, Anish Kapoor, Jaume Plensa, and Kathryn Gustafson. Gehry designed what is now known as the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, named after a $15 million donation was made by the Pritzker Family Foundation. This open-air concert pavilion, with its trademark stainless steel ribbons (see cover), can hold 4000 people in fixed seats and 7000 people on the lawn, which is bathed in sound by a state-of-the-art trellised sound system.

“Various elements were added to the park's design while construction was underway,” said Gujral. “These included the Pritzker Pavilion, Cloud Gate, Crown Fountain. Lurie Garden, BP Bridge, and the Exelon Pavilions. Coordination of these additional elements required a significant effort from the designers, artists, project management team, and contractors.”

Uhlir echoed his thoughts. “The most difficult part of this project was coordinating all the elements,” he said. “I had to work with the donors, the designers, and the mayor, as well as the contractors on this.”

URS Corp. was retained by the PBC to act as the owner's representative, said Jim Conrath, the company's project manager for the effort. “We provided an extension of staff to the PBC to provide program and construction management. Over a four-year involvement, this came to include eight individual contracts ranging from $4 million to $60 million,” he said.

Due to the unusual nature of the various donations and the construction constraints, the park was in a constant state of flux, including drawing and design changes. Contractors came and went as the design evolved. Since many elements were paid for with private donations, each arm of the project's management team had to work carefully to ensure that the donors' expectations were met.

“The most difficult part was keeping up with program improvements,” said Conrath. “With continued contribution of capital, additional elements were created and included in the overall undertaking, often requiring modification of work completed or underway. The team required flexibility and timely distribution of information and changes to minimize disruption and subsequent cost.”

It took teamwork to coordinate and complete the various elements going into the park's structure and design. “The PBC hired O'Brien Kreitzberg (a division of URS) in July 2000 to act as the owner's representative,” said Gujral. “The relationship between the city's existing project management team and design team and the PBC-led team was initially strained, which is understandable during a time of transition. However, we pulled together as a team, and at the end of the day it was this team that successfully completed the project.”

The city used no property tax dollars to pay for the park, though some money normally used for public works projects did contribute. The final price tag was $475 million, and its completion was four years behind schedule—the city held a gala opening in July 2004. Some say that this money was not spent wisely. According to the city's budget office, the city's portion is $270 million—most coming from bonds backed by revenue from the underground parking garages and some from the Central Loop TIF Fund. But the park also brings revenue to the city that is difficult to quantify, both in tourism dollars and the increases in area real estate values.

“We're setting the standard for other cities,” said Uhlir, referring to the public-private partnership that was undertaken.

“The most rewarding thing for all involved was the eventual overwhelming approval of the park by the people, the pundits of Chicago, and the various state, national, and international communities,” said Conrath.

And the one-year-old park is already an award-winner, many times over. In November 2004 the U.S. Mayor's Business Council recognized the park as the public-private partnership project of the year. The park has won an Illinois Engineering Excellence Award and several architecture awards. And in May, Uhlir was awarded the 2005 Barrier-Free America Award by the Paralyzed Veterans of America for the park's accessibility. As visitors—and public works professionals—visit this famed park, more awards are sure to follow.