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City Plans Walkway Along Chicago River

Rendering of the Jetty section of the riverwalk, along the Chicago River
The Jetty, between Wells and Franklin streets, is a section of the riverwalk that will provide educational space for people to learn about the ecology of the Chicago River. It will also feature fishing piers. © City of Chicago, Department of Transportation

A six-block-long riverwalk that will reconnect Chicago with its famous river—including a marina, a jetty, and outdoor entertainment space—is being given serious consideration.

November 6, 2012—The Chicago River is first and foremost, an engineering triumph—at least since Chicago leaders first reversed its flow in 1900 so sewage and waste would travel downstream toward the Mississippi River instead of into Lake Michigan. (See “The Reversal of the Chicago River: Flushing the System,” Civil Engineering, December 2009, pages 40-43.) It is also an aesthetic triumph, passing through a forest of masterpiece skyscrapers and offering among the most picturesque urban views in America.

But for years the Chicago River was seen as a polluted eyesore, unworthy of comparison to Chicago’s more famous lakeside parks. Margaret Frisbie, the executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, a volunteer organization dedicated to the river’s revitalization, says that improved environmental standards have changed the river’s prospects. “As early as the late seventies various groups would say we should have some kind of riverwalk,” Frisbie says. “The difference in the last 20 years is the water quality has changed so dramatically that the Chicago River is a river you want to be near.”

Now the 156 mi river, which runs through the center of Chicago before branching off north and south, is squarely at the center of the city’s development, sustainability, and cultural plans. Earlier thus month, city officials released a proposal to create a six-block long riverwalk along the river’s southern edge. “In a general sense, it’s creating a linear urban park on the Chicago River,” says Dan Burke, P.E., S.E., M.ASCE, the deputy commissioner and chief engineer of the Chicago Department of Transportation.

It’s the culmination of years of planning dating back more than a decade, when the city rebuilt the east-west stretch of double-decker Wacker Drive, the boulevard that parallels the river. While some pieces have already been put in place—a Vietnam veterans memorial west of Wabash Avenue in 2005, and a shorter walkway linking Wabash to Michigan Avenue, one block to the east, in 2009—it’s always been a tricky project, from both financial and engineering perspectives.

The chief challenge previous riverwalk plans have had to face comes from the movable bridges that span the river; their large foundations make it impossible to stroll the entire length of the river at water level. You can go only a block before you have to ascend to street level, cross the street, and then go back down.

In fact, the current design team—consisting of lead designers Sasaski Associates, Inc., of Watertown, Massachusetts, and Ross Barney Architects, of Chicago; the Chicago-based engineering firms Alfred Benesch & Company and Rubinos & Mesia Engineers, Inc. (RME); and Chicago-based landscape architects Jacob/Ryan Associates—tried to build on prior plans. The administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who took office last year, “didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” Frisbie says. “He recognized [that] the work done by a broad stakeholder group was really good.”

The riverwalk will stretch a spacious 25 ft into the Chicago River on its south bank. Although the river is busy in warm weather with sailboats, tour boats, water taxis, and kayaks, transportation officials studied the waterway’s utilization and concluded that narrowing the river won’t affect its use; the river still has “plenty of untapped capacity,” Burke says.

According to a press release issued by the mayor’s office on October 8, the centerpiece of the plan is a promenade divided into a series of “rooms”—each block-long stretch having a different theme and set of activities. According to the city, there will be a marina to accommodate restaurant and retail space; a cove featuring kayak rentals; a “swimming hole” with a zero-depth fountain for kids; a jetty complete with fishing piers; and a boardwalk that will feature floating gardens and an “iconic bridge bringing people from Upper Wacker down to the riverwalk.” 

 Rendering of the river theater which displays seating for several hundred

 Situated between Clark Street and LaSalle Drive at the center of
the proposed Chicago Riverwalk, the block-long river theater has
seating for several hundred and is meant to be a popular gathering
spot. © City of Chicago, Department of Transportation

At the center of the proposal is a block-long River Theater—essentially a wide cascade of stepped seating, with a capacity in the hundreds. “This was planned as a central location,” says Ryan Giblin, AIA, LEED-AP, a project manager with Ross Barney Architects. He says the goal of Carol Ross Barney, the firm’s principal, was “to bring the city down to the river; fold the sidewalk down to the river.”

This means zigzagging a sidewalk down a gentle grade from the street to the river, and solving the critical question of access from Wacker Drive to the river’s edge. The river theater will be landscaped with shade trees and may serve as a landside seating venue for performances brought in by boat—perhaps a film or concert on a barge—but it is also designed to stand on its own as a place where people can bring their lunch, hang out with a book, or people watch.

At this point, there’s just one question: who’s going to pay for it? The $95.5-million project has no funding at the moment, but observers within city government and without all sound confident that the city will secure financing. The city has applied for federal grants through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA, which provides loans and lines of credits to help fund significant transportation projects.

“We don’t have anything locked down at this point, but with the enthusiasm and the interest in this, both at the local and federal level, the solution will be found,” says Burke.

Construction documents are just about complete for the first three blocks of the project. “As soon as we secure funding, we could be ready to issue these within 30 to 60 days,” Burke adds. “Our goal all along is to get these to where they are shovel ready. We hope to be building this next year.”

 Rendering of the boardwalk which promises a pedestrian bridge and floating gardens

 Located at a bend in the Chicago River, the boardwalk promises
an iconic pedestrian bridge, surrounded by floating gardens, to bring
people from Wacker Drive to the river. 
© City of Chicago,
Department of Transportation

The project could begin to come online within two years from the start of construction. Still, despite the enthusiasm, the project faces a number of challenges. As Burke notes, “You’re working in the central area of the city on the water, [and] there’s an active waterway. Behind you there’s very limited staging area. You have just myriad facilities and utilities you have to construct around.”

Under the river run water mains and gas mains, as well as century-old freight tunnels. And the river walk still faces the challenge of wrapping around the bases of those movable bridges—and constructing under the bridge walkways will be a secondary challenge.

Most of the riverwalk will be constructed by driving sheet piles into the river, which is 24 ft deep, and then backfilling behind it. However, connecting the river walk under the bridges will be trickier. The movable bridges—central north-south arteries through downtown—will have to be raised during construction, and the walkways will be built on top of micropiles, which can be more easily placed in conditions with tight access or limited overhead. Small-diameter hollow pipes will be sunk into the river floor, and then filled with high-strength grout. To reduce the noise, construction crews are likely to use a vibratory driving hammer rather than a conventional impact hammer.

The walkways will be made of structural steel and built atop a series of V-shaped braces, spaced at 5 ft intervals, which in turn will rest upon a concrete beam that connects to the caissons. The idea, says John Belmonte, P.E., S.E., M.ASCE, the project manager for RME, is to create a feeling that you’re on the water. “This walkway has to be very rigid so when pedestrians are walking over they’re feeling safe,” he says. Finally, the underpasses will be fitted with canopies to protect pedestrians from road debris dislodged by cars on the bridges above.

The riverwalk is meant to continue the transformation of Chicago from brawny and blue-collar to stylish and cutting edge. “It means a true avenue for economic return, for tourism, for the people who live and work here,” Frisbie says. “The Chicago River is right downtown. To have it be part of the city as opposed to separated is really going to be magical.”



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