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2016 MCHAP

Chicago Riverwalk - Phase II

Carol Ross Barney, FAIA

Chicago, IL, USA

May 2015


Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, Ross Barney Architects Gina Ford, ASLA, Sasaki Associates


Terry Warriner Ryan, FASLA, PLA/Jacobs Ryan Associates (Landscape Architect ) Kurt Naus, Project Manager/Alfred Benesch & Co. (Marine, Structural Engineer) Mohsen Faharany, Principal/Rubinos and Mesia Engineers, Inc. (Structural Engineer) Harish Goyal, Civil Engineer/Infrastructure Engineering, Inc. (Civil Engineer) Robert O'Brien (MEP Engineer) Giulio Pedota, Principal/Schuler Shook (Lighting Design) Daniel M. Gross, Project Engineer/Alfred Benesch & Co. (Construction Management )


Dan Burke, PE, Deputy Commissioner, Chief Engineer/ Chicago Department of Transportation


Kate Joyce Christian Phillips


The subtle – and overt – design changes of the Riverwalk are creating a new civic place in Chicago’s fabric. The task at hand was technically challenging. The design team, for instance, needed to work within a tight permit-mandated 25-foot-wide build-out area to expand the pedestrian program spaces and negotiate a series of under-bridge connections between blocks. Further, the design had to account for the river’s annual flood dynamics of nearly seven vertical feet. Turning these challenges into opportunities, the team imagined new ways of thinking about this linear park. Rather than a path composed of 90-degree turns, the team reconceived of the path as a more independent system—one that, through changes in its shape and form, would drive a series of new programmatic connections to the river. With new connections that enrich and diversify life along the river, each block takes on the form and program of a different river-based typology. These spaces include: Marina Plaza: Restaurants and outdoor seating provide views of vibrant life on the water, including passing barges, patrols, water taxis, and sightseeing boats. Cove: Kayak rentals and docking for human-powered crafts provide physical connections to the water through recreation. River Theater: A sculptural staircase linking Upper Wacker and the Riverwalk offers pedestrian connectivity to the water’s edge and seating, while trees provide greenery and shade.


In recent decades, there’s been a slow-rolling transformation of a neglected and underutilized remnant of Chicago’s industrial era. The dock and promenade along the Chicago River, better known as the Chicago Riverwalk, has been evolving from an industrial sink to a recreational asset. The river’s history is one of continual evolution since the founding of Chicago. Straightened, edges hardened, and famously redirected, the Chicago River has figuratively and literally been bent to serve the city in various capacities. That service included, and continues to include, commercial transportation and wastewater management. Yet as early as Burnham and Bennett’s 1909 “Plan of Chicago,” the Main Branch of the river was also envisioned as a place for leisure and strolling, along the lines of a Parisian boulevard. The entire river system has steadily gained a vocal collective of advocates, all looking to reconnect the daily experience of the city with the dynamic and changing life of the river. New layers of urban recreation and a growing interest in the ecological dimensions of the waterway began to change the perception of the river, and increase its appreciation as a valuable natural resource. From this new viewpoint emerged the Riverwalk - Chicago’s “second shoreline” - a continuous public walkway lined with amenities, commercial opportunities, and physical access to the river.


What might have been unimaginable years ago has been achieved; an activated riverfront in the heart of a booming urban core. When Chicago turned its back on the river, a natural asset that was seen purely as functional became the city’s backyard. During its inaugural year of operation, Phase II of the Chicago Riverwalk became the city’s living room; an urban counterpoint to Chicago’s front yard, Grant Park. With a wine bar, kayak tours, boat docking services, water taxi stop, and a myriad of public programs, the city’s newest civic space was mobilized with unthinkable energy. Scenes of young office workers sipping drinks and kayaks scooting along the water became a normal occurrence. This reinvention of urban life is at the heart of a new economic chapter for Chicago. Prime real estate with sweeping views and connectivity now tout an invaluable civic amenity. Building on the excitement of the Chicago Riverwalk, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Metropolitan Planning Council announced “Great Rivers Chicago,” an unprecedented effort to create and coordinate a long-term vision and plan for economic and community development along Chicago’s riverfronts. Beneath the history of the site and the technical challenges it presents, lays a current of public sentiment for a more strongly interwoven relationship between the City and the river. The intent of the Riverwalk is to not only create a continuous east-west circulation system, but also a series of north-south relationships. The urban language deployed creates interplay between City and river that has invigorated urban life.

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