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Credit: 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.