'Cloud Gate'

The Chicago skyline is reflected in the mirror-like finish of the Anish Kapoor sculpture “Cloud Gate” in Millennium Park. (Tribune Photo by E. Jason Wambsgans)

Above a blighted, sunken site once occupied by railroad tracks and a gravel parking lot, what is arguably Chicago's most expansive outdoor cultural project since the Columbian Exposition of 1893 is finally open.

Millennium Park, which cost more than $475 million and spans 24.5 acres, is quintessential Chicago. This city -- that makes no small plans, that reversed the flow of its own river, that boasts the nation's tallest building, that forever labors to shed its "second city" status -- could never be sated by a run-of-the-mill greensward.

Add to the equation Mayor Richard M. Daley's well-documented affinity for flowering greenery, outdoor recreation, big statements and the physical definition of the urban moment, and the park, destined to become one of Daley's most significant legacies to his city, became a reality.

The much-delayed project, which opens to the public this weekend with a grand and free three-day festival, is anything but typical Chicago open space.

Millennium Park was intended by its public and private benefactors to function as an up-market creative showcase -- an expensive, high-profile, brand-name, art-filled theme park designed as a destination for visitors and area residents. But it also exists so that Chicago's competitive business leaders can make a statement about their city's pre-eminent place in the creative world.

Abandoning an initially modest idea for some new parkland to fill in an eyesore, Daley and his enthusiastic coterie of private benefactors have instead spent several years and millions of dollars packing a cluster of astonishingly high-profile cultural icons inside the compact six city blocks that make up Millennium Park, located to the north of Grant Park and sandwiched between Michigan Avenue and Chicago's lakefront.

"This park," Daley says, "is destined to have a huge impact on this city. "

Clearly, this is not intended to be a place to skateboard or hit a softball. Nor is Millennium Park designed to house the Taste of Chicago and the other major, populist festivals that already bring hordes of people to the downtown lakefront every summer.

A special conservancy with its own board of directors and staff curators, not the more prosaic Chicago Park District, will be in charge of its operation.

"This is a cultural park as opposed to a recreational park," says Edward Uhlir, Millennium Park's project director.

When the locks finally come off the metal fences this weekend, Chicagoans will be officially introduced to an 11,000-seat outdoor concert venue designed with flourishing metallic bows by the internationally acclaimed Frank Gehry; Gehry's snaking, sloping, first-ever bridge and "Cloud Gate," a huge, 110-ton sculpture from Anish Kapoor done up in reflective stainless steel.

Those only are the headliners. There's also a garden designed by world-renowned landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson (who just unveiled the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial in London) and Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa's pair of towering glass edifices, whereupon video projections of regular Chicagoans will appear to be emitting water from their mouths.

Seeing the disparate, large-scale work of so many internationally visible artists of varying media in such close proximity — and on a permanent basis — makes Millennium Park without an obvious extant peer anywhere in the country.

Big-name sponsors

A quilt of corporate sponsorships shows how the cost of the bounty was divided — it's the BP Bridge, Wrigley Square, the Lurie Garden, Bank One Promenade (for now) and the McCormick Tribune Plaza, which houses an ice rink. The Gehry band shell is named the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, after the founder of the Hyatt Hotel chain. The names of those paying the bills are prominently displayed.

Given the name of Millennium Park — initially intended as a temporal celebration but retained despite the progression of the 21st Century — the four-year delay is impossible to hide. Even as it opens to the public, some aspects of the park still remain unfinished, with the Kapoor sculpture not expected to be fully finished until September.

But if the delay is obvious, it still can be redefined. Despite a 2001 Tribune investigation that found poor planning and design problems had led to increased costs, the park's creators — led by Daley — argue that they merely took their time creating an abiding attraction for the ages, rather than promoting and developing an unpopular, temporary boondoggle such as London's disastrous and already defunct Millennium Dome.

"Most Millennium gifts to other cities already have been torn down and forgotten," Daley says. "This is a gift to the City of Chicago that will last." And the park will be, Daley insists, "for everyone."

The story of how Millennium Park finally arrived at its opening is long and complex.