Walking the Walk

Fifteen years in the making, a new public space reunites Chicago with the river that runs through it.

By Jane Margolies

An accessible walkway at the River Theater blends seamlessly with the site. Photo by Kate Joyce Studios.

“Isn’t it hot?” Gina Ford, ASLA, asked excitedly, waving a well-jacketed arm around her on a cold morning this past fall as she, the architect Carol Ross Barney, and Terry Ryan, FASLA, met up at the Chicago Riverwalk to show me around.

Not exactly the word I would have chosen, given the temperature, but, yes, the new promenade they designed along the Chicago River, in the downtown of Illinois’s largest city, most definitely is.

Extending eight blocks along the river’s southern bank at a level below the streetscape, the Riverwalk is part of a 1.25-mile path from Lake Michigan inland that some are calling the city’s “second shoreline” (the lake, which borders Chicago to the east, being the “first,” of course). Each block-long space is bookended by the historic bridge houses that operate the movable spans that cross the waterway. And each has its own distinct riverside character, ranging from the Marina, a hub of food and drink purveyors, to the Jetty, an ecology-themed section that includes floating gardens and fishing piers. A continuous pathway stitches the segments together, weaving around the bridge houses before continuing on. And all of it adds up to a
grand new setting for strolling, jogging, or simply sitting and looking up at the phenomenal buildings—a virtual museum of classic 20th-century architecture—that rise up along the river.

It only took a century.

The idea of building pedestrian paths along the Chicago River was first put forth by the architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham in his Plan of Chicago, published in 1909, coauthored with Edward Bennett, and better known as the Burnham Plan. But even by the time Burnham was formulating his framework for the future growth and beautification of the city, the river was a far cry from its origins as a meandering, marshy prairie waterway.

Widened, deepened, straightened, canalized—essentially totally re-engineered—the river today is actually a system of rivers and man-made channels with a combined length of 156 miles. Linking the Great Lakes with the Mississippi Valley waterways, it offers a route for ships to reach the Gulf of Mexico, and, along with the railroads, is the very reason this Midwest town rose to become the third most populous city in the United States.

But by the late 1800s, the water was fouled with sewage and industrial waste, and the south fork of the river, the dumping grounds for the Union Stock Yards, was known as Bubbly Creek. Because the river flowed into Lake Michigan, the source of Chicago’s drinking water, its condition threatened the city’s water supply. In the early 20th century, engineers reversed the direction of the river, constructing a series of locks that cause water to be drawn from, not emptied into, the lake. Still, the sluggish waterway remained so rank and its banks so trash strewn that few could envision the riverfront as a place they might want to linger by.

Things began to change after the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, which spurred improvement in rivers here and across the country. In 1979 the nonprofit Friends of the Chicago River was founded and began calling attention to the waterway as a degraded natural resource that needed to be nursed back to health. The group began sponsoring cleanups and working to re-create habitat that had been decimated over decades of abuse. One notable 2005 effort was a “fish hotel,” designed by Living Waters Consultants and WRD, a floating dock anchored to the river wall consisting of man-made islands and submerged “cribs” for fish suspended underneath.

Two Chicago mayoral administrations got behind the Riverwalk and found creative ways to get the job done. In the 1990s, former mayor Richard M. Daley, Honorary ASLA, used a road project to kick-start the promenade—during the reconstruction of Wacker Drive, the historic double-decker thoroughfare faced with a Beaux-Arts arcade that parallels the main branch of the river, the roadway was shifted slightly, providing more buildable land along the river. He also secured permission from Congress to add landfill to the navigable waterway to create a build-out of 25 feet along most of the eight blocks. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in turn, obtained a $100 million Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan to complete the project, to be paid back by fees from vendors operating in the new park.

The bridges that span the Chicago River divide the Riverwalk into distinct “rooms.” Photo by Iwan Baan.

The Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT), which coordinated design and construction through both administrations, took special pride in building this new civic amenity, according to Oswaldo Chaves, the current project manager, who joined the designers and me on our morning tour. “Usually we’re repairing bridges,” he said.

As we walked the Riverwalk, workmen swarmed, tinkering with the still-spotty railing lighting and putting the finishing touches on the ramp on the last section of the promenade. Called the Riverbank, it overlooks the confluence of the river. Mayor Emanuel had officially declared the entire Riverwalk open at a ribbon-cutting event days before, but a long punch list remained, and the restaurant or other destination attraction expected to occupy the Riverbank section had yet to be determined, let alone designed and built. A heavy downpour the night before had pounded fledgling plants and left the paving wet. But the park has been designed to withstand flooding (which, at any rate, is less of a problem than one might expect since the river’s water level is managed through the lock system). And, besides, nothing could dampen the spirits of the designers as they surveyed their handiwork.

Barney and her Chicago firm, Ross Barney Architects, had designed the first section of the Riverwalk in collaboration with Terry Ryan of Jacobs/Ryan Associates, another local outfit. Completed in 2009, this first portion extended two blocks—one with a plaza devoted to a Vietnam veterans memorial. It was an instant hit. Veterans made pilgrimages to the site—some even held weddings there—and at lunchtime downtown office workers flocked to its grassy terraces. It drew people down to the river, providing an escape from the traffic and bustle—and a tantalizing taste of what a continuous walkway along the water could offer in this dense urban area.

In 2010, when the city issued an RFP for the remainder of the Riverwalk—six more blocks, to the point where the river’s main stem meets its southern and northern branches—Barney sought out help. She contacted Sasaki, with which she’d worked on previous projects, and was introduced to Ford, a partner with expertise in waterfront sites. Ford’s Watertown, Massachusetts, firm joined the design team, taking the lead on the rest of the Riverwalk.

As we strolled along, Barney said the fact that the project proceeded in stages over a decade and a half had benefits. For one thing, city officials became increasingly comfortable with public access to the water. The memorial plaza is elevated several feet off the water and has a railing along its edge. There is no place for human-powered boats to dock—the city was adamantly opposed to this in the early stages of the Riverwalk’s development. Subsequent sections, however, step right down to the river, with boat hookups and railings only where absolutely necessary. “We didn’t want to put the river in a cage,” says Michelle Woods, who was the CDOT project manager before being transferred to the Department of Fleet and Facility Management, where she will oversee the Riverwalk once CDOT finishes construction and turns it over to its sister agency.

A reflective canopy over the promenade protects pedestrians from anything that might fall through the bridge grating above. Photo by Kate Joyce Studios.

The design of the under-bridge connections along the riverside path also evolved. The first two, completed in 2009, directly abut the limestone-faced bridge houses, but later connections are a couple feet out in the river so that water flows on both sides of the walkway. It’s much more fun to step out onto these—you’re essentially walking on water—but there are practical benefits, too: Graffiti artists can’t easily get at the bridge house walls from the walkway. And if the walls need to be repaired, temporary platforms can be installed in the water, according to Chaves. Canopies designed by Barney’s firm provide a protective covering for pedestrians as they pass under the bridges, many of which have open grating. Angular in form and made of mirror-polished stainless steel, the canopies are as cleanly modern as the bridges are traditional, their surfaces so shiny they reflect the rippling river surface, reinforcing the water theme.

The character of the remaining six “rooms” between the bridge houses had yet to be determined when Sasaki joined the team. The designers began kicking around the idea of having each section represent a different riverside “typology,” as Ford put it. The concept stuck.

The Riverwalk plan. Image courtesy of Sasaki and Ross Barney Architects.

Thus, the Cove, one of three sections finished in 2015, has low, rounded-edge precast concrete benches meant to suggest flat river stones, according to Ford, and there are tie-ups for kayaks. Ryan, the plants specialist in the group, filled beds near the river with beachgrasses and tucked woodland plants on the higher level of the plaza—a plant combination “found on beaches all over Illinois,” she says. Another segment, which the designers named the River Theater, is a block-wide amphitheater-like staircase leading down to the water with an accessibility ramp making a dramatic diagonal slit that turns the whole thing into a large-scale sculpture. Meanwhile, at the just-opened Water Plaza, an elevated zero-depth fountain that will function as a splash pad for kids in warm weather has arching jets, bubblers, in-grade color-changing lights, and a color-changing trough uplight. At the front of the fountain, a sheer curtain of water courses down—it’s impossible to resist the urge to reach out and run a finger through it.

Attached to the piers are floating wetlands framed in stainless steel. Photo by Christian Phillips Photography.

The Jetty is experiential in a different way; it was conceived as an outdoor classroom where teachers can bring students to learn about the river, which is far cleaner than it once was due to a decrease in combined sewer overflows and the disinfection of sewage effluent. The stainless steel-framed floating gardens here were inspired by the Friends of the Chicago River’s fish hotel, according to Ford. Ryan specified rows of native iris, sedge, and other water-tolerant plants. Right now the floating beds look a little like mini farm fields bobbing on the water. Eventually, Ryan says, the plants will grow together in a lush tangle. Hidden below the floating beds—and below the piers themselves, which jut out at irregular angles—are underwater amenities for the fish that are making a comeback now that the river is cleaner (increasing from eight species of fish in the late 1970s to 70 species today, according to the Friends of the Chicago River). These amenities include pole hulas (essentially shredded rope) and custom lunkers (caisson-mounted shelves and pockets).

Reading up on the Riverwalk before heading out to Chicago, I had wondered about all the differently themed segments: Would they come off as hokey or disjointed? I needn’t have worried. The designers have conjured abstract interpretations—not kitschy, literal re-creations—of riverside conditions. This is no theme park. Continuity is provided by a sophisticated materials palette that is handled in sensitive ways. Carnelian granite, for example, is used for the paving that abuts the granite-based limestone Beaux-Arts arcade, while more rugged precast concrete suggestive of wooden boardwalk planks is deployed where each section steps down to the river—a contrast that Ford describes as “refined” versus “naked.” (Meanwhile, she calls the Jetty, which is intended to evoke a natural riverfront, “wicked naked.”) And then there’s the unifying effect of the river itself, which is a murky greenish-brown (except on Saint Patrick’s Day, when it’s dyed bright green, and, recently, in celebration of the Chicago Cubs’ triumph in the World Series, “Cubby” blue).

The Riverbank end of the Riverwalk is the least developed, and in some ways the most parklike, section of the promenade. The Riverwalk widens here, much of it devoted to lawn, though Ryan says more plants are coming in the spring. The path wraps around the green space to connect with a ramp leading back up to street level. The city plans to issue an RFP seeking a vendor to build and operate a business on the site. In the short term, the city is considering permitting a temporary use, such as food trucks or a farmers’ market.

Features elsewhere on the Riverwalk, however, are permanently in place—and quickly acquiring fans. Consider the long, tall benches at the Marina, which is packed on warm evenings when the food and drink vendors, whose operations are tucked into the Beaux-Arts arcade, are open. Made of reclaimed teak, the benches serve to stitch together the upper and lower levels of the plaza. Jutting out at the rear are counters on which those imbibing can rest their glasses. The bench back is tilted at an angle so one can comfortably lean back to appreciate, say, Bertrand Goldberg’s “corncobs” (the cylindrical towers of his landmarked 1960s Marina City complex) on the opposite bank, or watch yellow water taxis and double-decker tour boats ply the water. Companion seating, in the form of niches cut into the bench, permit anyone in a wheelchair to pull right up alongside—one of a number of gestures that take the Riverwalk from being merely compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act rules to being actively welcoming for wheelchair users.

Later in the day, after saying good-bye to Barney, Ford, Ryan, and Chaves, I stood on the northern side of the river and looked back at the new public space they helped bring into being. Cars zipped along Wacker Drive, while down below on the Riverwalk pedestrians and dog walkers moved at their own pace.

A couple of runners powered up the ramp at the River Theater. Then I watched a woman in a wheelchair use the ramp as intended. She paused at the top and then rolled down, her black lab trotting behind her. By the time I caught up with her, she’d cruised along the river, careened around, and tooled up the ramp to the splash pad at the Water Plaza. While others snapped selfies in front of the fountain sprays, Karen Sternfield came to a stop, a smile on her face.

A recent transplant from Boston, Sternfield, who has multiple sclerosis, was in the park for the first time. She told me she’d spotted the Riverwalk from a restaurant on the opposite bank. “I saw all the steps and said to my husband, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to get in there. There’s no way I can do it.’” On this day she found out that, thanks to the Riverwalk’s thoughtful design, she can.

Jane Margolies, a New York journalist who is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, last wrote for LAM about Underpass Park in Toronto.

Project Credits

Client The City of Chicago, the Chicago Department of Transportation, Department of Fleet and Facility Management. Prime Consultant Sasaki, Watertown, Massachusetts. Lead Design Architect Ross Barney Architects, Chicago. Landscape Architect Jacobs/Ryan Associates, Chicago. Structural Engineers Alfred Benesch & Company, Chicago. Civil Engineering Infrastructure Engineering, Inc., Chicago. Structural Engineering Rubinos & Mesia Engineers, Inc., Chicago. MEP Delta Engineering Group, Chicago. Geotechnical Engineering Geo Services Inc., Arlington Heights, Illinois. Lighting Design Schuler Shook, Chicago. Water Feature Consultant Fluidity Design Consultants, Los Angeles. Specifications ArchiTech Consulting, Inc., Mount Prospect, Illinois.

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