Building Chicago's Other Waterfront

Building Chicago's Other Waterfront

We are still years away from the completion of Chicago’s Riverwalk overhaul, which will expand The Loop’s riverine greenway from two blocks in length to eight. But it’s worth noting now that the project, led by Sasaki Associates and Ross Barney Architects, has transformative potential for downtown.

The project’s marketing potential was the focus of a recent meeting held by Chicago’s transportation department. The waterway, once known as “The Stinking River,” found itself anchoring a tourism wish list commissioned by the city that included glass-enclosed cable cars running along the banks from Navy Pier.

While The Loop project and the river’s rising place in the public discourse are cause for celebration, the time is right to revisit the river’s role throughout the city, not just downtown.

Projects along the 156-mile system of rivers and canals that comprise the river system need not wait for downtown to come to them. The Riverwalk could act as a wellspring for projects branching north and south, tethering them to a central business district on the rebound. But riverside projects could further localized place-making all on their own, while the additional green infrastructure would benefit the entire city.

Horner Park on the northwest side is one of several riparian parks along the river’s north branch, and in warm weather it is a veritable community center.

Though traditional parks may not be possible, nor desirable, along every inch of the river, even densely developed areas can benefit from riverfront paths. By including pedestrian underpasses on the Halsted Street Bridge project, designers Muller + Muller and Lochner engineers looked ahead to the day when the downtown Riverwalk would reach the site’s crossing into the River West neighborhood, nearly one mile northwest of Wolf Point.

The Chicago River Corridor Development Plan, published in 1999, required developers to leave space along the river for natural areas and public greenways. One way to build on this framework would be to encourage river-friendly design proposals for redevelopment of the Lathrop Homes and the former Fisk and Crawford coal plant sites on the city’s southwest side.

Piecemeal riverfront development ties into the city’s comprehensive urban plans for economic development and stormwater management. David St. Pierre, executive director of the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District (MWRD), which owns much of the riverfront property, has called for a network of green infrastructure distributed throughout the city. The individual landowners who have taken up the city’s Sustainable Backyards program have begun that work, while MWRD itself has taken the important step (under legal pressure) of disinfecting wastewater discharges by 2015.

Large projects resurrecting the river’s cultural significance are on the move, too. In the Calumet region and south suburbs, federal dollars are helping realize the hard work of those promoting the Cal-Sag Trail, a 30-mile multi-use path along the banks of the Cal-Sag Channel and the Calumet River.

Such steps add momentum to rising interest in river recreation, and improve prospects for private development that embraces the river rather than turns its back to this civic and natural resource.