The Evolving Chicago River

The Evolving Chicago River
Chicago Tribune

Chicago’s lakefront is commonly thought of as the city’s crown jewel. Twenty-six miles of public park land line the coast, featuring beaches, revetments, harbors and the Lakefront Trail. Conversely, the exploits of the Chicago River for its industrial utility and as a means of disposing the city’s sewage are infamous. In the last few decades, however, the main branch of the Second City’s second shoreline has progressively become one of Chicago’s top destinations. A number of ambitious projects seek to further the river’s evolution into the city’s backyard treasure.

Riverwalk

Chicago Tribune, Riverwalk

One of the first projects that established the river as a recreational attraction was the creation of the Riverwalk. Completed in 2005, green spaces, cafes, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza provide visitors an excellent vantage point to observe the skyscraper river canyon. As mentioned in a previous post, the six block expansion will be completed by 2016.

Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune, Ping Tom Memorial Park

Another park space that is accessible along the river is Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown. Phase II, which added additional green space and a boardwalk, opened in 2011. Both the Johnson & Lee Architects designed boathouse with canoe and kayak rental and the 30,000 square foot fieldhouse by Wight & Company were completed in 2013. Visitors to the fieldhouse are able to enjoy a gym and pool with a green design that includes a green roof and geothermal heating and cooling.

John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune, WMS Boathouse

John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune, WMS Boathouse

The second completed boathouse in 2013 was the WMS Boathouse in Clark Park in Roscoe Village. Designed by Jeanne Gang and Studio Gang Architects, the two building facility is an architectural marvel with its serrated roofs and light-filled interiors. In addition to boat storage and rentals, the boathouse features rowing tanks and ergometers for training.

A third more modest boathouse is currently under construction near Argyle in River Park. Gang is being tapped again to design the fourth and final boathouse on the South Branch in Bridgeport, which is scheduled for a 2015 opening.

Chicago Tribune, Horner Park

Chicago Tribune, Horner Park

Also on the North Branch, restoration of the riverfront in Horner Park in the Irving Park neighborhood has recently begun. The Army Corps of Engineers is eradicating invasive and non-native plant species, regrading the riverbank, and planting prairie grasses and oak trees near the river’s edge. While the restoration is expected to take several years to complete, once finished, this stretch of riverfront will be haven for native plant life and habitat.

DNAinfo, Addison Street Underbridge

DNAinfo, Addison Street Underbridge

Just south of Horner Park, construction of the Addison Street Underbridge is tentatively scheduled to begin later this year. The elevated underbridge will not only provide impressive views for pedestrians and cyclists, but will also be an important link between Clark Park and California Park. The eventual goal is to create a continuous path to the North Branch Trail, which meanders all the way up to the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

Chicago Tribune, Wolf Point

Chicago Tribune, Wolf Point

Back downtown, three major office and residential tower developments are bound to radically alter the confluence of the three branches. On the historically significant Wolf Point, which considerably juts out in the river, the first of three planned towers is under construction. The Kennedy family owned site will also include a new riverfront park and riverwalk.

Curbed Chicago, River Point

Curbed Chicago, River Point

Curbed Chicago, 150 N. Riverside

Curbed Chicago, 150 N. Riverside

On the west bank of the confluence, two office towers will fill in the gaps of the river canyon, include additional riverfront park space, virtually hide the Metra tracks, and extend the riverwalk. With its projected height of 730 feet, River Point is the tallest Chicago tower currently under construction. Its neighbor to the south, 150 N. Riverside, is also estimated to rise over 700 feet. Groundbreaking for this tower is expected by the end of the year.

Two plans to make the river more hospitable are the eventual completion of the Deep Tunnel Project and the EPA mandate that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District disinfect its treated wastewater. After beginning construction in the 70s, Phase I of the Deep Tunnel Project was completed in 2006. Essentially, untreated sewage water is stored in a tunnel, reservoir, and quarry network in order to avoid sewage flowing into the river and lake as a result of heavy rain and flooding.  Although the construction is on going, the project is not expected to be fully completed until 2029. The MWRD’s two new facilities for disinfecting wastewater in suburban Stickney and Chicago’s far south side will be opening in 2015.

The sole organization dedicated to improving the health of the river and its habitat is Friends of the Chicago River. In addition to conducting restoration projects, FOCR provides a variety of guided canoe excursions and opened and runs the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum on the Riverwalk. Volunteers are welcomed at restoration workdays throughout the year. The next restoration event is on July 12 at Kickapoo Woods.

The lakefront will always be Chicago’s greatest natural wonder, but with all the improvements and newly accessible spaces, the Chicago River is finally approaching its potential as a vast recreational asset.

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