Wood Dale turns to man behind Millennium Park for help

Designer for help with downtown area, park of its own

  • Millennium Park architect Edward Uhlir may soon work with Wood Dale to create a downtown vision for the community of 13,000.

    Millennium Park architect Edward Uhlir may soon work with Wood Dale to create a downtown vision for the community of 13,000. Courtesy of Edward Uhlir

  • This nondescript strip mall near Irving Park and Wood Dale roads in Wood Dale could be a starting point for efforts by the city to create a downtown with a greater sense of identity.

      This nondescript strip mall near Irving Park and Wood Dale roads in Wood Dale could be a starting point for efforts by the city to create a downtown with a greater sense of identity. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Architect Edward Uhlir served as the project design director and master planner for the creation of Millennium Park. But that doesn't stop him from taking on smaller projects.

    Architect Edward Uhlir served as the project design director and master planner for the creation of Millennium Park. But that doesn't stop him from taking on smaller projects. Courtesy of Edward Uhlir

 
By Annalisa Rodriguez
arodriguez@dailyherald.com
Updated 6/20/2012 5:40 AM

Whether the project's massive -- like Chicago's $470 million Millennium Park -- or if it's creating a $26,000 vision for a small suburb looking for some identity, Edward Uhlir says it's all about creating a sense of place, a space that invokes a feeling of pride.

Uhlir, the Chicago-based architect who served as project design director and master planner for one of the nation's most iconic parks, is likely to be given a $26,000 contract Thursday to help create a downtown focal point for Wood Dale, population 13,000.

 

"Not every project can be as big as Millennium Park," Uhlir said. "You also have to have a lot of smaller projects."

One such opportunity involves creating a community park and helping to revitalize the downtown area for Wood Dale. Uhlir is working with another architect, John Nelson, to create a master plan and vision for the area near Irving Park and Wood Dale roads.

The city's planning, zoning and building committee has recommended approval of the contract, and the city council is scheduled to finalize it Thursday night.

When you've designed something like Millennium Park, the Wood Dale job might seem to be a no-brainer.

Uhlir, however, says all projects come with their own challenges. And as a self-proclaimed problem-solver, he welcomes the chance to tackle them.

A promising start

Chicago is not just the city Uhlir associates with his biggest success -- it's also the place he's called home since childhood.

He attended Lane Tech College Preparatory High School, where he excelled in math, art and science -- a combination he says is essential for any architect.

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He got his first exposure to the profession as part of a school requirement.

"At Lane, everyone takes architectural courses for at least one semester, and I really loved that," he said. "I think that exposure to architecture and drawing and drafting sort of stuck with me."

Uhlir initially pursued a pre-med degree at Northwestern University before deciding it wasn't the right path. So he transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago and pursued his early interest in architecture.

"I love art, too, and photography, and so all those artistic endeavors were something that seemed to fit together with architecture," he said.

During his time at UIC, Uhlir worked part time for the firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, which was once the largest architecture firm in the world.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Then one day, he saw an ad for a position at the Chicago Park District. He got the job and spent the next 25 years with the district, working his way up from architect to head of engineering design to assistant superintendent for research and planning, a position in which he prepared master plans for the district.

His experience planning parks is what led Mayor Richard M. Daley to take interest in him -- an interest that would lead to the biggest project of Uhlir's career.

Designing the park

Say "Millennium Park," and "old-fashioned" and "traditional" probably won't leap to mind.

That's not by chance. Uhlir made sure of it.

In 1998, Daley asked him to get involved because there were problems with the proposed park's accessibility and a design the mayor didn't think would move the city into the next century.

"It was pretty old-fashioned, the original plan," Uhlir said. "Very traditional -- a formal kind of plan that was not really exciting."

Uhlir was appointed project design director and master planner and worked to gradually transform the design. He served as a liaison among the mayor, donors, city departments and multiple design teams, whose efforts he coordinated.

"The design was not a single vision of one architect," he said. "There were multiple architects who got involved."

Uhlir designed the basic layout of the park, solved accessibility issues and regularly met with community groups.

"All these things evolved over time," Uhlir said. "It took 5 years to build the park. The difficulty was really convincing the city departments and the mayor at the time that these were good ideas. My job was to make sure these pieces fit together."

It seems to have worked. Studies show Millennium Park generates about $1 billion in tourism dollars; more than 4 million people visit each year, he said.

"It's increased pride in place by the community," Uhlir said. "It's one of the things that's put Chicago on the map worldwide."

It's that same kind of pride in place that Uhlir hopes to create for Wood Dale.

Dreaming big

It's been a while since Wood Dale had a defined downtown -- maybe not since the late 1800s or early 1900s.

For the past 10 to 12 years, the city has been toying with plans for redevelopment and the creation of a downtown area or community park, said John Forrest, director of community development.

For now, the city council has approved a strategic plan calling for a "downtown vision," a place that ties the community together and provides a lure for residents and visitors.

That's where Uhlir came in.

It was a chance meeting that brought the architect and Wood Dale together. At a Sister Cities function, Uhlir met Ross Klicker, the city's planning and economic development coordinator. The conversation led to talk of Wood Dale's challenges.

"We just got talking and it seemed like an idea worth exploring, so we've continued discussions with him," Klicker said.

No one will mistake Wood Dale's efforts for Millennium Park, but officials say they're crucial to the city's long-term success.

"When you're going down Irving Park or driving through there, you don't really know when you're coming into Wood Dale or when you're going out of it," said Nelson, who is working on the project with Uhlir. "You don't realize you've been there unless you know you're there, so it's to create a sense of place where it has an identity, and they can build on that with future development."

Numerous ideas have been tossed around, including tying Salt Creek to the overall design, using sustainable energy, linking the city's history to art in the community park, and incorporating the recently built train station.

"The train station is sort of critical," Uhlir said. "It's a transportation node and it needs some other civic development or public development attached to it so it creates more of a center."

A new downtown destination or community park also could provide an economic boost, officials said, although nothing close to the scale of Millennium Park.

"It's a much smaller situation, so you wouldn't generate that kind of thing," Nelson said. "But, still, when you create a sense of place, people want to be there."

Uhlir said any plans will evolve over time based on research, input from the community and the ability to build a consensus.

"It's sort of a give-and-take, back-and-forth, and then we'll eventually come up with a plan that hopefully will be embraced by the majority of people."

He's used the same process for projects that involved restoring a 1-acre park in the Virgin Islands, redeveloping a five-block shopping district in Chicago and working on Aurora's RiverEdge Park, a $13.2 million project to build a music venue and outdoor gathering space along both sides of the Fox River just north of downtown.

In the end, it's about looking at the community and creating something that looks like it belongs there, Uhlir said.

"Design should be something that really fits the community."

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