While eyes are elsewhere, a stink radiates from O'Hare Airport

While  everyone is distracted by Kim Foxx’s and a judge’s puzzling deliverance of Jussie Smollet from the judgment of the criminal justice system, almost no one is paying attention to the textbook example how the Chicago Way is stinking up O’Hare International Airport.

But, it hasn’t escaped the notice of Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize winning architectural critic who wrote,Jeanne Gang’s design for a light-filled O’Hare airport is born in the darkness of the Chicago Way.”

While the Smollett debacle is being described as a classic case of Chicago’s unique style of mis-governance, it is small potatoes to how clout, insider deals and backroom pacts run just about everything at O’Hare.

In Kamin’s expert opinion, Gang’s design runs a poor third in a field of consortiums that submitted proposals to build an expensive, world-class replacement for O’Hare’s Terminal 2.

Gang has no experience, as do other applicants, in airport design. Kamin wrote that Gang’s design will not necessarily…

flop. But it doesn’t come close to the structural bravado of the Foster plan, whose dramatic, shell-like roof would have sheltered a flexible interior entirely free of columns. That one was my choice. Rejecting it will go down in history as a major lost opportunity.

While pointing out the Gang design pluses, he also suggests potential problems such as passenger inconvenience and other flaws that had to be eliminated from the proposal, such as a real lawn inside the terminal.

I don’t have a design favorite, nor do I pass judgment on the Gang team’s work, but Kamin hits on something important when he wrote:

Did Gang and her team of collaborators, who are known as Studio ORD Joint Venture Partners, win this job the Chicago Way?

Most important, what does their selection mean for a traveling public that deserves a break from O’Hare’s overcrowded, outdated terminals?

Kamin notes that Gang has worked closely with the city on other projects, promoting him to ask if her team had “a leg up on her competitors. But they offer little to prove otherwise. In essence, the city is saying: ‘Trust us. The plan won because it won.’”

That’s nothing new. Nothing happens at O’Hare that isn’t part of the bigger reason for its existence: A mountainous source of contracts and jobs for insiders.

It’s worth quoting Kamin at some length:

In announcing the decision for the $2.2 billion Global Terminal, the city presented the meaningless rationale that Gang’s team achieved the cumulative highest score from a committee of so-called “experts.” Nor, citing longstanding procedure, did it identify members of the committee or release the committee’s report to the public, though officials said the mayor did not take part in the selection process.

The city’s absence of openness stinks to 35,000 feet, especially because it came just a day after Emanuel was all over national TV, blasting Cook County prosecutors for a lack of transparency in dropping charges against “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett.

And the stakes of the O’Hare expansion, especially for millions of travelers, are far higher than the fate of some two-bit actor.

I’ve got my own problems with the Terminal 2 plans, including this critical one: Will it put out of operation one of the remaining diagonal runways that currently are being used at times to reduce noise over certain airport neighbors. Or will the ballyhooed noise dispersal plan disappear?

Just like the previous, decades-long battle over O’Hare expansion, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s new $8-billion-plus terminal and expansion plan was concocted in the dark and foisted on taxpayers and travelers. A better option was available, but then-Mayor Richard M. Daley straggled it politically because it was a challenge to his airport domain. The result was the so-called O’Hare Modernization Program, a gigantic boondoggle that cost at least $16 billion while failing to come close to achieving its promised reductions in the delays that have made O’Hare a traveler’s nightmare.

It’s no coincidence that Gang’s selection was announced just weeks before Emanuel leaves office. And if the Chicago Way is in operation, the City Council will approve it before he leaves.

And the rest of us will be left holding the bag that the autocratic Chicago Way has decreed.



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