Chicago doesn’t have an iconic tourist attraction. There’s no giant Ferris wheel, no observation tower, no famous bridge. Entrepreneurs Lou Raizin and Laurence Geller want to change that with a gondola. Over the past four years, the men studied more than fifty signature attractions in cities around the globe and came up with the Skyline as an iconic attraction for the Windy City. As presented to the City Club of Chicago on May 3rd, the plan includes a gondola from Navy Pier with multiple stops along the Chicago Riverfront. David Marks, the architect behind the London Eye, collaborated on the innovative design with New York-based Davis Brody Bond. Marks also designed the British Airways i360 observation tower with a passenger capsule built by Poma and Sigma. The Skyline project would likely bring together the same team from the Eye and i360 with engineering firm Jacobs Inc. and ropeway technology from Leitner-Poma.
Mr. Raizin and Mr. Geller say they’ve spent millions designing and studying the Skyline, which will cost an estimated $250 million raised from private investors. The premise is sound but the proposal comes with significant challenges.
1. What is it?
“This is not your typical aerial gondola,” Mr. Geller told the City Club. The system would transport 3,000 visitors per hour at 800 feet a minute. That’s pretty standard for a monocable gondola. The challenge is architects want big, beautiful cabins while also keeping a “light footprint” for the system. Renderings show approximately 25-passenger cabins with only one haul rope and no grips. To date, the largest monocable gondolas in the world carry 15 passengers, not 25. Larger cabins require track ropes, bigger terminals and complex towers with saddles.
2. Custom = Expensive
Custom and iconic are words Raizin and Geller kept going back to during their presentation. A big advantage of gondolas is their modular design that keeps costs down and makes construction relatively quick. Each lift manufacturer has standard towers and terminals that can be customized but at increased cost. Both CWA and Sigma spent years developing their latest-generation large gondola cabins, Taris and Symphony, respectively. To stray completely away from those and build from the ground up will cost tens of millions of dollars.
Portland’s aerial tram project ballooned to $57 million with just one custom tower and two cabins designers wanted to look like soap bubbles. A city commissioner famously called the initial designs for the Portland tram “like an ugly ski lift at a bad ski resort.” He got his way but the tram ended up costing four times its initial budget. Jackson Hole’s “off the shelf” tram built at the same time by the same manufacturer was four times longer with larger cabins, four more towers and cost $26 million less. Skyline requires more than 75 custom cabins, dozens of towers and seven stations as currently envisioned.
3. Too many stations
Angle stations are expensive and Skyline has four of them plus an inline mid-station. The current design places each mid-station on a single, massive mast adding even more cost. Each of these stations must be continually staffed and requires hundreds of tires, belts and sensors that must be maintained. Mid-stations add to the number of grip cycles and trip time for passengers – a 10-minute ride turns into 15 minutes with a minute spent at each mid-station. The proposed 1.56-mile route is simply too complex with too many turns. The reason is not technical but rather practical; Doppelmayr once built a gondola with six angle stations. Backers would be better off picking one or two segments to build first and prove the concept. Additional sections can always be added later.
4. The Windy City
Gondolas, especially tri-cable ones, endure some of the harshest weather conditions on Earth. Skyline’s towers are planned to be 17 stories tall, around 180 feet. Even in its windiest month, Chicago’s average wind speed is only 12 miles per hour. The city’s wintry climate will probably keep tourists away more often than wind will shut down a gondola designed to operate in up to 60 mph gusts. In an acknowledgement that winters will be tough on attendance, Mr. Geller suggested letting schoolkids use the gondola instead of school buses in the off-season.
5. Public Perception
Perhaps most significant, urban gondolas still suffer from perception problem especially in the United States. I see it every day in the summer with folks who don’t trust these machines as the safe and reliable transportation systems they are. Aerial lifts are all-too-often viewed as contraptions and pipe dreams. Skyline is the third large American gondola proposal we’ve covered this week and once one succeeds hopefully they will become an easier sell. The rest of the world has already proven the concept.
A feasibility study commissioned by Skyline’s backers concludes 1.4 million visitors will ride the lift each year at a ticket price of $20. That sounds more reasonable than the 8,400 jobs and $330 million in annual economic impact the study also claims. Regardless, with some trade-offs on design, Skyline could happen. As Lou Raizin told his city’s business leaders, “the world wants iconic destinations. This is a no-brainer.”