Giant Ferris wheel proposed for Navy Pier

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Gargantuan Ferris wheels are the new status symbol for big cities vying to grab more attention on the world stage, so Chicago is going for an upgrade at Navy Pier, planning to build one at least twice the size of the existing wheel there.

A new, privately developed Ferris wheel, Navy Pier officials hope, would rise at least 300 feet into the air and attract the sorts of tourist hordes who plunk down big bucks to ride other monster wheels worldwide, including the enormous London Eye on the bank of the Thames.

Other cities such as Singapore and Beijing either have huge Ferris wheels or are planning them, and even Baghdad is dreaming of a giant wheel in the sky.

For Chicago, the Ferris wheel not only would be an extraordinary addition to the skyline, but a highly symbolic endeavor as well, because the attraction was invented in the early 1890s to be the star of the world's fair here.

Chicago "introduced the Ferris wheel to the world in the Columbian Exposition in 1893, and now other creative wheels have been built around the world," said Ted Tetzlaff, board chairman of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns and operates the pier. "We see no reason why we can't contribute another creative chapter in Ferris wheel tradition."

The authority, also known as McPier, on Monday will advertise for companies "to design, build, own and operate" a giant wheel, according to the bid document. "The design of the new wheel must be worthy to inherit the traditions of the original Ferris wheel built by George Washington Ferris."

 "We're basically looking for the wheel to be self-financed, so taxpayer money will not be involved," Tetzlaff said. The idea is for the developer to construct the wheel, and to share a portion of its revenue with the pier. Officials declined to speculate on the cost of such a project.

Bidders also are asked to "use their ingenuity" as to where the wheel should be located on the pier.

The move comes as Chicago seeks to host the 2016 Olympics as a way to remake its image on the world stage, and as Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava aims to remake shake up the skyline with his twisting Spire condo tower, which is expected to rise almost due west of Navy Pier.

And the step could help the Olympic bid, one observer said. "The city's been very good about adding attractions on a regular basis; it did the planters, Millennium Park," said hospitality industry expert Ted Mandigo, based in Elmhurst. "This would add to the attraction of the city as a destination for the Olympics."

Tetzlaff said the timing of the Ferris wheel move was not directly related to the Olympic bid.
Rather, "there really is no public money available for improving the pier, and this is one of the big ideas that can be self-funded," he said.

Two years ago, McPier paid a consultant nearly $385,000 to come up with ideas to refresh offerings at the pier, which had its first remake into an entertainment zone in 1995. A larger Ferris wheel was among the suggestions then.

No action has been taken until now, in part due to financial constraints, and in part because some suggestions, such as a floating hotel and a roller-coaster, were poorly received by some of the city's architects.

The scale of the London Eye project, at 443 feet, at first brought howls of protest. Opened in 2000, costs ran higher than expected, by some estimates over $100 million, and it had financial difficulties in its early years due to heavy debt loads.

Still, the facility has grown into the most popular paid tourist attraction in Britain.

It draws 3.5 million visitors a year, with a base adult ticket price of about $27 for a 30-minute "flight." Prices rise for rides that serve Pimm's, or champagne, or mulled wine. Private "capsules" can be had for about $770, with bubbly costing extra.

In contrast, a 7-minute ride on the existing Ferris wheel at Navy Pier costs $6, and draws 750,000 visitors a year. McPier owns and operates that wheel, and may keep it in place.

And there would be opportunities for Chicagoans to ride a new, giant wheel for a greatly reduced fare, or for free, "to ensure its an experience everyone can have at some time," Tetzlaff said.

A giant Ferris wheel likely would have more than 30 heated and air conditioned gondolas that could hold about 25 passengers each, or about 750 people at one time, about triple the capacity on the existing one. And some of gondolas could have catering facilities.

"Can you imagine becoming engaged or having a wedding reception in a car several hundred feet in the air?" Tetzlaff said. "I think it could be a fun thing for visitors."

Mandigo said such an attraction would be a good draw, though it may not be a huge money maker, given the high cost of construction, the seasonality of its appeal and the staffing and power requirements to run it.

Still the idea is growing in popularity around the world. Singapore, Nanchang and London all boast behemoth wheels, and Beijing plans to debut the world's tallest next year, at 682 feet tall. Dubai plans to open one nearly as tall next year as well, and Iraq is soliciting bids for a Baghdad wheel.

Chicago is not going for "tallest" title, but rather is seeking innovative design, said Tetzlaff, adding he hopes the winning bidder would work with local architects and engineers.

For Chicago, the original wheel, on the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park, was the centerpiece of an event that redefined Chicago. Held just 22 years after the Chicago Fire, the Columbian Exposition put Chicago back on the map.

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