Home to buildings by such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Frank Gehry and Jeanne Gang, Chicago is no stranger to cutting-edge construction.
With the recent completion of the Chicago Riverwalk, the birthplace of the skyscraper now has its own ground level architectural masterpiece.
The Riverwalk, the last stage of which opened in October, is set to draw record crowds of locals and tourists to the banks of the Chicago River in 2017. In the words of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s latest beautification project has become the city’s “next recreational frontier.”
The walk extends about 1.25 miles from Lake Michigan to Wolf Point, passing under a series of bridges.
The six newest blocks, all completed between 2012 and 2016 at an estimated cost of $100 million, boast features such as floating gardens, fishing piers and fountains as well as an eclectic array of new waterside wining and dining venues. There are also areas where kayaks and larger boats can pull up and moor.
Some of the riverside restaurants that closed for the winter are opening their doors again on Tuesday.
Wowing the crowds
The Riverwalk has already proven a big hit with local business owners, Chicagoans and visitors.
“In the past I would never consider the downtown riverside area as a place to hang out or take clients,” said Steven Glynias, a Chicago-based account executive with public relations firm FleishmanHillard. “Now it’s Chicago’s latest must-visit destination. I think it will really take off this year.”
Tiny Hatt is a bar and restaurant midway along the Riverwalk’s “Cove” section between Dearborn and Clark streets. Since opening last year, it has wooed growing numbers of patrons with its craft beers, cocktails and pulled pork sliders.
“Maybe they didn’t realize it, but downtown Chicagoans were crying out for this kind of space,” manager John Lynch said. “I think business is booming for all the Riverwalk outlets.”
One of the major challenges for Chicago Riverwalk architects was coming up with a design that incorporated both a pedestrian walkway and places for people to stop and enjoy their surroundings. Part of the solution was to reclaim a narrow strip of land from the river’s edge.
“We had a 20- to 25-foot zone to expand the previous riverside dock and to connect that land under existing bridges,” said Gina Ford, landscape architect and design principal at Sasaki Associates, a Boston architectural firm that was part of the project design team.
“We wanted to give pedestrians a way to travel along the river without needing to cross a street,” she said.
Architects also had to account for the Chicago River’s dynamic water level. The Riverwalk’s hardscape and plant materials are all flood proof, while tethered floating gardens are free to rise and fall on metal poles.
“The floating wetlands we have created are unlike anything seen before,” Ford said. “They demonstrate Chicago’s real commitment to innovation in its push for environmental sustainability.”
Chicago residents haven’t always looked upon their riverside environment with such fondness. In days gone by the Chicago River was so polluted and unappealing that adjacent buildings would often have no windows overlooking the water.
Yet the last few years have seen a concerted effort to clean up Chicago’s main aquatic thoroughfare, with tougher environmental legislation and the opening of a new water treatment plant in 2015, leading to a significant improvement in water quality.
Fish species have multiplied, and animals such as otters, beavers and muskrats are gradually making a comeback.
“The Riverwalk and Chicago River cleanup have proved what is possible when everyone pulls together,” said David Plascencia, an instructor with local kayaking outfit Kayak Chicago, which offers increasingly popular tours along the river.
“There’s still a way to go, but hopefully Chicago will soon be as famous for its livability as its architecture,” Plascencia said.
Carol Ross Barney, lead design architect of the Chicago Riverwalk, said she believes its success — both in terms of attracting visitors and its ecological value — may lead other urban centers to embark on similar projects.
“Being in the center of a global metropolis, this project faced and overcame a lot of issues,” Barney said. “There were a lot of pioneering approaches, from design through to funding, that I think many of the world’s cities could benefit from.”