Route 66 update:  St. Therese Shrine and Chicago Riverwalk news

Are you keeping warm out there, fellow roadies?  Because the polar vortex is messin’ with Chicago again – brrrrrrr!  Well, all of the Midwest, really, and apparently the rest of the Great Lakes and New England, too.  Still, around here on Route 66, we have some great warm-up alternatives:  you can always stop at The Berghoff, Miller’s Pub, Lagunitas-Chicago’s taproom, Cigars & Stripes BBQ Lounge, or the Blue Rooster Lounge at Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket for a brewski or a grog and a snack to fortify you for the road.  Dell Rhea’s dining room is our favorite on a night like this because it has a lovely large fireplace (hey, we’ll fight you for that spot!  Naaah, just kidding.  Maybe). Y’all think on that while we bring you some news.

Improvements at the St. Therese Shrine

2014-10 St.Therese Shrine All Souls Day window - blogThose of you who are acquainted with the National Shrine of St. Therese in suburban Darien on Bailey Road near Joliet Road/Route 66/north frontage road (just west of the Cass Avenue interchange on I-55) know that the chapel there has some glorious stianed glass windows.  Well, in honor of All Souls’ Day on November 2, the shrine unveiled a new bit of stained glass featuring St. Therese of Lisieux that they’re just calling the All Souls’ Window.  It was created courtesy of donations form the members of the Society of the Little Flower, and it’s more representational than the abstract glass in the rest of the chapel, as you can see for yourselves.

Getting to see it in person, however, may be a bit of a chore at the moment:  the shrine and the Carmelite campus on which the shrine stands are both undergoing some reconstruction and renovation (now, in the winter, you ask?  Apparently so; brave souls, those construciton workers).  A new museum space will be one of the results.  The shrine is still open daily from 10am to 4pm, and you can still see many of the museum artifacts, though there may be a bit of a mess to walk through (your persistence will be rewarded, or so the shrine’s website seems to indicate).  Be aware that the sections being renovated at the moment may not all be open every single day of the construction period (it will depend on which section they’re working on at the time, we’re guessing, so if in doubt, call ahead at 630-969-3311 or check their website).  The shrine is located at 8501 Bailey Rd. in Darien.

Chicago Riverwalk’s phase II construction is good news

We mentioned way back in March that work would begin soon on the continuation of the Chicago Riverwalk.  Phase II will eventually connect the Riverwalk to Lake Street and the west bank of the South Branch, including Riverside Plaza, Union Station and, thereby, to Route 66 in downtown Chicago.  That’s great:  it’ll make it easier for Route 66 travelers – and all other visitors – to walk from Jackson Boulevard all the way to Michigan Avenue (or the reverse direction) via the Riverwalk, without worrying about car traffic or stop lights.  And on a warm summer’s day, that stroll by the water ought to be particularly refreshing.  We have a few more details now and a bunch of new artist’s renderings of what the different sections should look like, plus a few key questions.

Let’s do a quick recap of the Riverwalk’s history so far.  The very first section to be completed was the Gateway in 2000, an attractive tunnel right under the Lake Shore Drive Bridge that is just for pedestrians and cyclists and leads to the harbors and parkland at the mouth of the Chicago River, near the main lock.  Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it features lantern-topped towers that echo the Art Deco bridge towers above and tile murals designed by artist Ellen Lanyon that cover the high points of Chicago history.  Next, planners skipped over the section between Lake Shore and Michigan Avenue to focus on the part of the river’s main stem that usually gets the most attention: the segment between Michigan and State Street.  As designed by Ross Barney Architects and landscape architects Jacobs/Ryan, this section focused on creating a walkway for pedestrians and cyclists while providing space under the margins of Wacker Drive for summer shelter for food vendors and outdoor cafés; it took four years to complete between 2005 and 2009 and was undertaken at the same time as Wacker Drive reconstruction.  Rebuilding Wacker also freed up some space to create a small lower-level Wabash Memorial Plaza with a monument to fallen soldiers of the Vietnam War (upper Wacker Drive at Wabash Avenue already had Heald Square and its monument).

Chicago Riverwalk at Wabash Memorial Plaza - blog (Wikimedia Commons)

Chicago Riverwalk at the Wabash Avenue Bridge & Wabash Memorial Plaza  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Ross Barney shares duties with Sasaki Associates for the design of phase II, which will fill in the space between Michigan and Lake Shore and also build out a wider walkway west of State, next to Lower Wacker.  Construction work on building out the walkway began back in March and has been proceeding apace.  When completed, this will extend the Riverwalk from the main stem of the Chicago River around the bend to Lake Street on the South Branch, just past the confluence of the North and South branches at Wolf Point.  Word is that the work underway will also make the west bank under the Lake Street Bridge accessible.  Anything that would connect the Riverwalk to Lake Street and the west bank is precisely what will make it possible for people to walk along the river from its mouth down to Jackson Boulevard.

There has already been new construction on the west bank north of Lake Street that added housing and a hotel.  That has also made that part of the riverbank more attractive – but it doesn’t connect to the Riverwalk on the east bank, other than by going up to street level, crossing over on the Lake Street Bridge to upper Wacker Drive, walking past the curved 333 W. Wacker Drive Building and then taking the ramp at the riverbend down to Lower Wacker.  That’s a very long walk that goes up and down and has to cross surface streets around the 333 Building.

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Right now, the Riverwalk fizzles out somewhere between Wells and Franklin streets, leading to an automobile ramp that goes from lower to upper Wacker just where Wacker swings south.  An extension of the Riverwalk around the 333 Building with stairs or a shorter ramp leading up to street level at Lake would give pedestrians more sidewalk closer to the river and away from traffic lights and cars.  But you still have to walk a block down on Wacker Drive to Randolph Street:  there’s a gap between Lake and Randolph on the west bank, with exposed rail tracks and nothing else.  Once you reach Randolph and cross the bridge to the west bank, there’s a walkway along the west bank on the upper level plaza that takes you past the Boeing Building (aka the Morton International Building, built for the folks who bring you Morton Salt), the monolithic Art Deco-style Daily News Building, and onto Riverside Plaza all the way down to the commuter entrance for Union Station.  Mind you, on the west bank of the South Branch you won’t be close to the water, but you don’t want to be, either – most of what you’d want to see there is on the plaza/street level anyway.

So that gap between roughly Wells Street and Lake will now be closed.  So far, so good. Then you just need a way at the end of the Riverwalk to reach the upper street level at Lake.  Since we can’t see that access on the renderings, we’re really hoping it’s there.  What is there on the renderings is a proposed oval-shaped, glassed-in building two or three stories high that is a proposed public space with lecture rooms, meeting rooms, possible gallery space and a restaurant with roof access.  It’s situated between the 333 Building and the Riverwalk/river’s edge (see illustration below).  We bet that once that oval building is completed, it will probably have access to upper Wacker Drive and the plaza around the 333 building – and, thereby, access to Lake Street.  It would be only logical, but we haven’t seen anything yet to confirm that.

The thing that really disappoints us is the goofy names the planners gave the different sections of the Riverwalk extension.  It’s marketing B.S.  Why spend time on that gimmick when a more important question still remains to be addressed – namely, how are you going to make that Riverwalk attractive all four seasons of the year?  The vendors that currently use part of the Riverwalk’s east end during the summer aren’t there during the winter or during part of the spring or autumn, which makes the Riverwalk look dead and naked five or six months of the year (except for the hotels on the north bank of the main stem, which don’t count because they and their outdoor patios are there all the time; they put up pretty twinkle lights along the river in winter and people walk along their outdoor walkways, even in winter – but that’s because they have somewhere to go on that side and a reason to return from the outdoors, i.e., the hotels and their restaurants, etc.).  That little spot near the water cannon on the north bank, where a tiny park and a hotel patio come together, is a perfect example of a place people still want to hang out outside because of the view, even on a mild winter’s night.  There isn’t anything like that on the south bank where the Riverwalk is – thus, no reason for people to be out there half the year, even if the view is great.

For there to be permanent installations on the Riverwalk, you’d have to have access to utilities and sewer lines all year long (sorry, but Porta-Potties alone won’t do, especially in winter).  Part of the plan is to have a ‘market section’ along the Riverwalk between Stetson Drive (east of Michigan) and Lake Shore.  The renderings show an enclosed structure but provide few details.  Just who would be most likely to use this ‘market’ anyway?  An all-season market building is well and good, as far as it goes, assuming you can get people over there:  it’s off the beaten path for anyone who works near Michigan Avenue or farther west, and from the sketches it doesn’t look like it would be particularly easy for the guests at the Swissotel and the Hyatt on Wacker to get there.

Meanwhile, what happens to the rest of the Riverwalk in winter, i.e., the ‘marina’ and supposed kayak landing, the so-called ‘river theater’ (which is basically just stepped concrete seating – not a lot of takers for that in January) or the idiotically named ‘swimming hole’ between LaSalle and Wells Streets (like anyone would be insane enough to swim in the river!) or the reputed ‘jetty’ between Wells and Franklin?  I’ll tell you what’ll happen: nothing.  People will quite sensibly abandon it for the underground Pedway or ducking into nearby buildings at street level whenever possible, which will be dry and cozy compared to the exposed Riverwalk.  Point:  it doesn’t matter what stupid names you give those individual sections of the Riverwalk:  people don’t care.  More important, if the walkway doesn’t have amenities that potential users actually want there and using the Riverwalk isn’t convenient to wherever they’re going, people won’t use the walkway most of the year.

A proposed public building in front of 333 W. Wacker Drive on the Chicago Riverwalk  (sketch courtesy of City of Chicago)

A proposed public building in front of 333 W. Wacker Drive on the Chicago Riverwalk  (sketch by Ross-Barney Architects+Sasaki Associates provided courtesy of City of Chicago)

Regarding that:  nowhere in the renderings does it show room for all-season vendors between State Street and the bend near Lake Street (or even space for summer vendors, for that matter) – it’s all just walkway, seating and landscaping, except for that oval structure right at the bend with the restaurant inside (very convenient for the investment bankers and brokers in the 333 Building, we’re sure).  Which means you can expect all of the Riverwalk between State and the bend at Lake – all of the new construction, in other words – to be abandoned for at least four or five months of the year, depending how cold the late autumn and early spring are.  Who thought this was a good idea? Sounds like despite all the effort, not enough sensible thought went into this.

Please note that there is still pedestrian traffic on Riverside Plaza during the winter – probably because it’s the fastest way to reach the Union Station commuter entrance, and that’s why the buildings along Riverside Plaza keep that area clear of snow.  The lower-level Riverwalk, which is completely below street-level pedestrian traffic, doesn’t have that built-in reason for people to be there all year, so it damned well better try harder to attract them.  We don’t see that happening yet.  Good luck with that.

Until next time,
Your 66 tour guide, Marie



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