“The mayor’s new working group appointed to review our Museum Campus should seriously consider transforming McCormick Place Lakeside Center into a year-round, state-of-the-art, municipal athletic-recreation facility that would serve residents from all over the city and attract visitors from all over the world.
“Chicago lacks such a state-of-the-art athletic facility, but with more than 600,000 square feet of meeting and exhibition space, a large veranda and a massive flat roof, a Lakeside Athletic Center would be the largest indoor sports facility in the country and on the scenic shore of Lake Michigan.
“The McCormick Place Lakeside Center has weathered claims that it is underused, as well as calls for demolishing it or turning it into a casino. But instead, let’s turn this building right on the lakefront into a destination for health, exercise, enjoyment and play. Instead of inward-facing exhibits for out-of-town conventioneers, let’s use this massive, centrally located facility to offer access to the lake to everyone, Chicagoans and visitors, all year.
“Make it a destination for active recreation to complement the passive recreation of attending nearby museums and concerts. Design the indoor space so that sports offered in Chicago parks in the summer — baseball, tennis, volleyball, basketball, swimming, rowing, running, climbing, table tennis, pickleball, golf and more — can take place year round. Use the spacious, sheltered outdoor veranda as well, for food service, bike parking, concerts, dances, games and other gatherings. Turn its massive flat roof into a garden that continues the native plantings along the lakefront and incorporates complementary uses like bird-watching and stargazing, kite-flying, insect studying and similar activities also offered by the Chicago Park District and nearby museums.
“Most Chicagoans, and especially our youth, rarely experience the lakefront from a vantage point like Lakeside Center. They might make a trip to the beach or Navy Pier in the summer, hopefully an annual trip to the Museum Campus. But a Chicago Lakeside Athletic Center would provide a whole new world of year-round access to Lake Michigan for school groups, teams, families and clubs, lured by sports and athletics in state-of-the-art facilities. Make it free to Chicagoans, and charge visitors accordingly.
“What has been called Chicago’s ‘Berlin Wall on the Lake’ could become a beloved destination. Make it accessible by building gentle sloping berms of earth on the north and south to connect the bike path to the veranda, enabling all to walk or ride up and enjoy a fantastic view not available anywhere else!
“Most of Chicago’s athletic/park facilities are pretty worn down. We don’t have a public indoor Olympic-size swimming pool, for example, or many other high-quality public facilities that other cities have. But they would all fit at Lakeside, and there is built-in parking and transit access.
“In fact, Lakeside already hosts numerous national amateur athletic events and tournaments. What if the space were re-imagined by sports tourism and sustainability professionals with the goal of a multiuse, multisport showcase for Chicago’s commitment to health, play and all its residents?
“The Lakeside Center and adjoining underground parking facilities are built on Chicago Park District land and leased to the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority in an escalating arrangement totaling more than $48 million by 2042. Surely this arrangement can be renegotiated, with the potential for sports tourism, and revenue from sponsorship and naming rights that could underwrite upgrades to neighborhood park facilities as well.
“Add to the mix the 4,192-seat Arie Crown Theater, ‘Chicago’s largest first-class legitimate theater,’ according to McCormick Place, that is part of Lakeside Center and would also benefit from reimagination and repurposing.
“A municipal athletic facility at Lakeside Center would provide active recreation and access to the lake instead of wasting valuable lakefront access for private events. It is large enough to provide space for multiple activities to take place simultaneously, larger than any other indoor sports facility in the country. What better opportunity to create state-of-the-art facilities that would attract Chicagoans from across the city to participate in athletics and recreation, exposing them to new people and activities? We don’t need an Olympics to do this; we can do it for ourselves. It would make Chicago a healthier city, and it is an opportunity to combine nature and athletics, intentionally and creatively.
“As a city, we owe it to our citizens to look at all the possibilities for a unique, valuable and underused civic resource like the Lakeside Center and to consider the highest and best use for all Chicagoans. I urge the working group to investigate what sports, tourism, sustainability, culture and architecture professionals think about this opportunity, including revenue options from sponsorship and sports tourism.
“What a great opportunity to serve the most diverse cross-section of Chicago in the most meaningful way. (Koenen, Chicago Tribune Op-ed, 3/28/22)