Despite the less-than-pristine quality of the water, Chicagoans love their river. We like hanging out along it and cruising down it in good weather. We dye it green for St. Patrick’s Day. We stop to watch the sailboats making their way down the river to the lake every spring and back again in the fall. Even in bad weather, we love the view, for good reason: the architectural canyon that lines the river’s main stem is spectacular.
The Riverwalk along the river’s main stem east of State Street gets the most attention, but locals and visitors traveling Route 66 have a great view of the Chicago River’s South Branch from the pedestrian-only Riverside Plaza on the west bank. Commuters going to and from Union Station get to enjoy that view daily. This non-street ‘street address’ provides broad sidewalks right above the surface of the river, from Jackson Boulevard northward to Madison Street, where Riverside Plaza meets the plaza of the Daily News Building (the original section of Riverside Plaza) between Madison and Washington Streets. The skyscraper across Washington Street from Riverside Plaza, the Morton International Building where Boeing now has its headquarters, has a thin little riverside walkway of its own now that runs north up to Randolph Street.
The city has been working on the Riverwalk since the 1990s. There’s a big plan, but of course it all depends on money. Government money. Connecting Riverside Plaza to the Riverwalk is a fantastic idea – it would allow people to walk right along the riverbank from right near the river’s mouth in the North Pier area to the western edge of the Loop near Union Station (a commuter boat already makes that trip from spring to fall). However, the latest phase of plans for extending the Riverwalk will only go as far as Lake Street, as it turns out.
The city recently received Congressional approval to redefine the Chicago River’s navigational channel, allowing a build-out of the riverside path by 20 feet under each bridge and 25 feet between each bridge, plus 50 feet between Franklin and Lake Street, in order to extend the Riverwalk all the way to Lake Street. The new build-out will essentially make more room for a riverside pedestrian path from Lake Street all the way to the lakefront. All plans along the main stem west of Michigan Avenue are really for the south bank, BTW. We suppose that makes sense because that’s where Wacker Drive is, and that allows for more possibilities than the north bank, which is overwhelmingly privately owned and built up.
Extending the Riverwalk to at least Lake Street would put it past the confluence of the north and south branches of the river and curve it onto the South Branch. Thus, there would only be a block-long gap between the end of the Riverwalk and Boeing plaza at Washington Street (and if you’re walking on the south bank of the main stem, you could just walk along Wacker Drive on the upper street level from the main stem to Randolph Street before crossing over the Randolph Street Bridge to reach the Boeing plaza).
To be fair, conquering that one-block gap would be highly problematic. The gap on the west bank consists of rail lines at the level of the water’s surface, whereas the Boeing plaza and Riverside Plaza are at street level, at least one or two stories higher than the river (another argument for walking along upper Wacker Drive). Not impossible, of course, and a pre-existing long-term plan includes putting a plaza in just this problematic spot. Good thing, too, because the buildings on the east bank are pretty much built right up to the water’s edge, from Lake Street south all the way to Jackson.
The Civic Opera Building, where Lyric Opera resides, is a perfect example: it was deliberately designed with its back turned to the river, with only a slab-like wall exposed to the water. You can blame Extreme Robber Baron Samuel Insull for that: he was the one who commissioned the design of that building (and how perfect a metaphor it was for his various shadily-financed enterprises, having a beautiful façade but a grim aspect behind it). The original Morton Salt headquarters building north of Washington Street is the same. Only south of Madison do buildings on the east bank begin to open up to the river view.
The Riverwalk needs some filling in between State Street and its eastern end: it’s much more developed on the north bank than on the south side of the main stem. Expansion west of State Street is only doable on the south bank, for now (more buildings built right up to the water’s edge on the north bank), but we’ll see. One hopes that the recent call for qualifications (like asking for contractors’ references) will provide some interesting results; the city already has plenty of ideas about filling in newly created spaces on the south bank.
Some of that modification already happened with the recent reconstruction of Wacker Drive, but there’s more to come. Construction between State Street and LaSalle Street is already underway; construction between LaSalle and Lake is expected to begin later this year. The Riverwalk extension should be substantially completed by 2016, assuming there are no more incipient recessions (yeah, like we’ve recovered from the last one in Illinois … NOT). But we’ll see about that, too.
Until next time,