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Jackson Park Boosters Plan $10 Million Visitors Center

By Sam Cholke | December 20, 2013 8:07am
 Project 120 is planning a $10 million visitors center for Jackson Park to bring it up to the level of amenities offered in many North Side parks.
Project 120 is planning a $10 million visitors center for Jackson Park to bring it up to the level of amenities offered in many North Side parks.
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Why Designs

HYDE PARK — A group of well-connected park advocates is planning a $10 million new visitors center for Jackson Park.

“It will be a hub for people to come together to better enjoy Jackson Park,” said Robert Karr, an attorney at Masuda Funai, who is spearheading the project. “It’s exciting because we’re taking our time, and there is no need to rush things.”

Karr and other members of Project 120, a nonprofit established in August to promote Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision for Jackson Park, have worked behind the scenes with architects and planners to develop a center for the park that would bring many of the amenities of North Side parks like Lincoln Park to the south lakefront.

“You have examples of this all along the lake,” Karr said of basic amenities like bathrooms, concessions and performance and exhibition spaces that Jackson Park lacks. “I think the idea here is to have something accessible to everyone.”

The proposed center would be a 15,000-square-foot building designed by Why Designs that evokes the natural forms that define the park. The building would be built near a parking lot at the southeastern shore of the lagoon behind the Museum of Science and Industry.

“It’s beautiful. They’re going to build it in the shape of a phoenix,” said Louise McCurry, president of the Jackson Park Advisory Council.

McCurry said the group has chosen an ideal spot because it was once the location of the Music Court during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and is now an underutilized parking lot.

“It’s a very good thing; right now that area is being used for drugs and drinking,” McCurry said.

Karr said the framework for the plan is done, and the group is now working on programming that would ensure the visitors center is self-sustaining.

“It has to be self-sustaining; it cannot be something the Park District takes on,” he said.

A Park District representative did not respond to requests for comment on the proposal, but Karr said the proposal has been assigned a project manager at the Park District.

Karr said he would like to see the center focus on nature and the humanities as a complement to the museum’s focus on science. He said there are many strong stories of the park that the group is researching, including the park’s central location in annual bird migrations, the connection to the World’s Fair and the park’s role as the first place architect Frank Lloyd Wright was exposed to the Japanese architecture that would later heavily influence his designs for homes in Hyde Park and Kenwood.

The project would be funded entirely by private donations, Karr said. He said the group is considering trying to establish an endowment for the continued operation of the center.

Karr has lined up some heavy hitters for Project 120’s board to make the project a reality, including William Flordia, vice president at investment firm Advisory Research; Dayne Kono, director of Masuda Funai; and Kumiko Watanabe, a partner at Grant Thornton.

McCurry said Karr and others are familiar faces to Jackson Park advocates from their role in the Garden of the Phoenix group, which works to preserve the Osaka Japanese garden in the park. The group recently planted 120 cherry trees in the park.

Karr said the group has hired an architect and project manager and has talked with the Park District, but does not expect to break ground until 2016.

“It’s got to be the right building at the right time,” Karr said, adding that he wants the project to grow organically.

He said the next step is to have proposals for programming for a January meeting with stakeholders.