The Chicago Riverwalk. (Photo/Andrea Zelen)

The Chicago Riverwalk: Past, Present and Future

By Ivory Moore and Andrea Zelen

Posted: Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017

After more than a decade of planning and construction, the final phase of the Chicago Riverwalk project was completed in 2016, but the expansion of the multimillion-dollar renovation project is far from over.

With plans for the expanding into the southern and northern parts of the river underway, there is much more expected from the growing landscape along the city’s main downtown waterway.

Once the flow of the Chicago River was reversed in the late 1800s to early 1900s, the amount of pollution seeping into the river began to decrease. And with the decline of industrial work in the city, people began to consider possibilities of cleaning up and beautifying the area. That’s one of the goals of the Riverwalk project, officials say.

Brooke Webster, the General manager of the “City Winery Chicago at the Riverwalk,” said there are "many pros" to the Riverwalk development but also saw a few drawbacks.

“When the weather is nice you are abundant with customer base walking by," she said. "The architectural tour boats point us out along their tours. Our guests and staff alike have great views of river, bridges and famous buildings. Revenues have made it worth all the cons.

“[Cons are] having almost no indoor space, the only indoor space is for kitchen and bar; so staff only and still not ample space sometimes to hold our staff. Storage space is far( blocks and a half) where we need to get our back up kegs, ice etc. So production is twice as hard as a normal restaurant.”

The Riverwalk construction began in 2001, and in 2005 the first part of the project was opened to the public, the Vietnam Memorial. The completion of this project and the rest of the Riverwalk is led by Chicago-based Ross Barney Architects, later joined for phases 2 and 3 by Massachusetts-based Sasaki. It divided the project into 3 parts, spaced out over a decade. Each phase would bring something new and necessary for the Riverwalk.

The cost of the entire project has been approximated at $419.5 million. Majority of that price tag was used in the completion of Wacker Drive, though Riverwalk phases 1 through 3 cost $112 million. There were three major sources of funding for the project, a TIFIA loan of $98.7 million, federal funds of $232.7 million, and State/Local funds of $88.1 million.

Phase 1 of the Riverwalk expansion began around 2005 and was completed in 2009. It included the Vietnam War memorial, which was one of the biggest outsides of Washington DC, and protective canopies underneath bridges, to protect pedestrians from debris from cars passing overhead.

Timeline: Chicago River's Past and Future

The second phase of the Riverwalk was completed in 2015. It included three spaces designed to bring pedestrians closer to the river. It includes the Marina Plaza, Cove, River Theater. Restaurants now grace the riverfront including City Winery, Island Party Hut Tiki Bar & Grill, Tiny Tapp.

The Marina Plaza is where most of the new restaurants are located, as well as a small harbor for kayaks and other small boats. Weather permitting, it is a great location for watching the active river and Riverwalk.

The Cove gives kayakers the chance to land and go on-shore. It serves as a harbor for small man-powered boats and kayak rental services. Pedestrians can visit the Marina by every form of transportation, including by foot, train, bus, bike, or even through the water

The River Theater is a wide set of steps connecting the street to the river. It has a fully wheelchair accessible path that is entwined diagonally through the steps. It can be used as a place for events, or for relaxation throughout the day, especially with trees providing shade and added beauty.

Phase 3 of the Riverwalk expansion was completed recently, in 2016. It was meant to expand on the desire to create a more connected Riverwalk in phase 2. Phase three focuses on creating a family-friendly and entertaining space for use. Included in this expansion were the Water Plaza and Jetty.

The Water Plaza has been designed as a family and children’s area. It has a brilliant water and light show, the perfect place to play and cool down when the weather is warm.

The Jetty includes fishing piers and floating gardens, as a way to teach about the ecology of the river. Underwater, fish hotels are created that provide protection for the increasing fish population.

This expansion has shown to be a success, helping expand development on the Riverwalk. Ever since phase one was finished in 2009, numerous big projects have been built and are being developed, using the new Riverwalk as a major selling point. In Ross Barney’s publication about the Riverwalk construction, they show nearly $7 billion in construction value has been generated since the completion of the project.


StoryMap: New locations for Riverwalk expansion

The Riverwalk provides new and creative ways for restaurants to showcase themselves to the public. When asked if the expansion of the Riverwalk is something that would support, there was only positive feedback from Webster.

“I think any expansion of the Riverwalk would be great. But especially south, south is more deserted and the traffic is not as intense there. It would also connect some great south and North Side neighborhoods to the center of the city.”

Steven Majerus, the manager of the Island Party Hut Tiki Bar & Grill, said the restaurant is “consistent with the themes of a tiki bar and water is a part of that, it was a great opportunity to be on the Riverwalk with our floating operation and embracing a great outside location that customers can enjoy.”

Majerus said there’s nothing but strong support for the plan: “Until this most recent development, Chicago was one of the major cities without a Riverwalk, as long as it is controlled and done correctly and properly, and increases revenue and programs along with it I believe it will be great.”

Austin Frisby, an employee of City Winery during the summer of 2016, supports the expansion of the Riverwalk.

“I believe it offers locals and tourists a unique perspective of the city sights," he said. "Additionally, it has the unique ability to offer places to eat to those traveling by water.”

The Chicago Riverwalk. (Photo/Ross Barney Architects)


The Riverwalk’s future is still being planned. Developers say they hope to create an ecologically sound environment while developing an area for families and community members to enjoy. Both the Ross Barney Architects and Sasaki are focused on cleaning up and developing the river, with a goal of a river that’s clean enough to swim in by 2040.

River Edge Ideas Lab was a program by the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development to create a push for riverfront investment. 9 different world-class firms participated. We were able to get information on some ideas brought up by the Ross Barney Architects, through their proposal of River Rituals.

One idea was the Lyric Colonnade, where there would be a river level entrance to the Opera, as well as a riverfront space for shows and performances. Another idea was the Congress Filter, where it would elevate the river to be able to teach about the efforts to improve river health. The third idea was the St. Charles Raceway, an area on the Air Line Bridge Edge for competition and excitement.

The plans for the health and entertainment on the Riverwalk create excitement for the future of the Riverwalk and Chicago as a whole. The desire to clean up our water system, and provide a fun and educational experience for Chicagoans and guests alike.

“The Riverwalk expansions have been an amazing addition to the Chicago landscape,” Columbia student and frequent Riverwalk user Simon Knuth said. “It makes me excited – for the future of the river, both from an entertainment and ecological standpoint.”

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