(CNN) — Celine Wysgalla remembers the first time she stepped foot into Crystal Gardens as a 5-year-old, her tiny body overshadowed by ancient trees that towered above her.
For more than two decades, the indoor garden at Chicago's Navy Pier has been a cherished escape from bustling city life, a reminder of the peace and quiet reflection that only comes with being immersed in nature.
But the beloved tropical garden, which has always been free to the public, is set to be replaced with a new paid digital experience.
Now a 25-year-old recent graduate of the University of Illinois Chicago, where she earned her master's degree in environmental health, Wysgalla is leading an effort to save the one-acre indoor garden.
"The Gardens offer a chance to interact with nature and increase your appreciation for the natural world. There is nothing like the Crystal Gardens in Chicago, and it is one of very few free indoor green spaces available to the people of this community," Wysgalla told CNN.
"I know how precious green space is and how rare it is to have an indoor space like this in the city, so I would be devastated if the Crystal Gardens were torn down."
Wysgalla launched a petition on September 16 to save the garden. It has so far garnered more than 18,000 signatures. She also started an Instagram account, dedicated to saving the garden, where hundreds of people have left comments sharing their memories of Crystal Gardens and their hopes of protecting it.
Crystal Gardens is currently home to more than 80 soaring palm trees and enormous monstera plants, among other tropical greenery, all enclosed inside a six-story glass atrium scattered with dancing fountains.
The new entertainment experience, "Illuminarium," is set to be constructed inside the former garden. Construction will begin early to mid-2022, with the attraction opening in the fall or winter, CNN affiliate WLS reported.
"Navy Pier's partnership with Illuminarium will transform the one-acre, hardscape Crystal Gardens from an underused garden and high-end private event space to a year-round anchor destination for families," a Navy Pier spokesperson told CNN.
"It's incumbent upon the organization to develop attractions that support the maintenance, viability, and programmatic offerings of Navy Pier," the spokesperson added.
Chicago's Navy Pier, a popular tourist attraction and nonprofit organization, temporarily closed beginning in September 2020 for more than a year, in efforts to "limit the financial burden and impact" of the coronavirus pandemic. The loss of earnings from the pier's primary sources of revenue such as the Centennial Wheel, Children's Museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theater have resulted in a projected deficit of $20 million this year alone, according to the Pier, which called the loss "devastating."
"Over these last 10 days, I have heard stories from people near and far about all the special memories and moments they've had at the Gardens -- weddings, proms, quinceañeras, performances, festivals, engagements, gatherings with family and friends, the list goes on," Wysgalla said.
"I understand Navy Pier needs to offset the effects of Covid-19, but I think Navy Pier underestimated how important the space is to Chicagoans and visitors alike."
Navy Pier did not respond to CNN's request for a response to the petition but defended the new project, which it says was "fully vetted" and approved by the Chicago Plan Commission, Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals, and the City Council.
Protecting a free experience for low-income residents
Devki Patel is a graduate student at DePaul University and another outspoken activist demanding Navy Pier reconsider the new venture.
Constantly pulled between school, work, and the busy city life, her sanctuary was Crystal Gardens, where she could "find creativity, relaxation, and connection with nature," Patel says, an experience she firmly believes cannot be replicated.
"Given the direction of climate change and the constant news of harm to our environment, these spaces are our only way to connect with biodiversity and life," Patel, 26, told CNN.
"We do not need any more virtual experiences of nature, plenty of museums offer exhibits that are immersive in the same capacity. There is no reason an experience like ["Illuminarium"] cannot take place in a venue that does not require uprooting and tearing down decades-old plants and foliage."
More importantly, she added, preserving Crystal Gardens also means protecting a safe haven for the residents of Chicago who cannot afford to pay for an experience.
"Crystal Gardens is one of the only free experiences left at Navy Pier. The decision to close this space heavily limits the accessibility of one of the top attractions in Chicago," Patel said.
The gardens have also partnered with nonprofit organizations and museums to host educational events, entertainment, and programming for children.
"These events enrich the vibrant culture of Chicago and connect residents and tourists alike in an unforgettable setting," she added. "By making the space paid-only, the city inadvertently restricts a large number of Chicago residents from the experience and this proposed area of Navy Pier."
Nurturing a relationship with nature
"Illuminarium" will be a 32,000 square-foot immersive experience which projects images, sounds, and scents that transport visitors to another place, WLS reported. The first show, according to WLS, will be an experience called "Wild" that will take participants to Africa. Viewers will come "face-to-face with the world's most exotic animals in their natural habitats" and gaze at the Kenyan night sky, according to the Illuminarium website.
Patel pointed to the irony of replacing a real nature experience with a paid digital one.
"The loss of this space would be a loss for preservation and a win only for those profiting from the capitalization of this space," Patel said. "I guarantee you that no Chicago resident wants to engage in a virtual safari at the expense of existing wildlife."
Caelan Jones is another Chicagoan who spent much of his childhood visiting Crystal Gardens, which became the first place he ever saw such massive plants.
Years later, Jones is now a plant expert, grower and seller, helping people get in touch with nature through a connection with plants.
"I've seen them improve so many people's lives just by giving them something new to be interested in. We must preserve all of our major outlets for people to experience plants in such an immersive way," Jones told CNN. "Studying via book or screen is no comparison to watching a plant sway in front of you in real time."
Crystal Gardens "opens a gateway" to people's curiosity about plants and nature as a whole, and is a source of joy and passion to the Chicago community -- which is more valuable than any experience Navy Pier can offer, he added.
As the clock keeps ticking, edging closer and closer to the end of Crystal Gardens, Chicagoans who call the garden a sanctuary say they will fight for it until the end.