Maximizing the Chicago Riverwalk’s Role as a Transportation Route

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CDOT rendering of "The Boardwalk" section with a bridge leading up to Wacker Drive.

The Chicago Riverwalk extension, from State Street to Lake Street along the south bank of the waterway, will be a marquee public space and recreation project in the same class as Millennium Park and the Bloomingdale trail and park. And like the Bloomingdale, the riverwalk also has the potential to be a valuable addition to our city’s car-free transportation network.

Chicago Department of Transportation project manager Michelle Woods outlined the $90-100 million riverwalk plan at a community meeting yesterday at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. The current design assigns a unique theme and function to each of the six blocks between State and Lake, with the bridges over the river serving as boundaries between the different sections, Woods said.

“The Marina” (from State to Dearborn) would have retail space and public seating, while “The Cove” (Dearborn to Clark) might feature kayak rentals and docks for other human-powered watercraft. “The River Theater” (Clark to LaSalle) would be a series of steps leading down from Wacker Drive, which could double as audience seating for a floating stage.

“The Swimming Hole” (LaSalle to Wells) would feature a water play area for kids, perhaps a “zero-depth” fountain similar to Millennium Park’s Crown Fountain. “The Jetty” (Wells to Franklin) would offer fishing piers and floating gardens, and “The Boardwalk” (Franklin to Lake) would be the site of an artistically designed bridge that would bring visitors from Wacker down to the riverwalk level.

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"The Marina" section.

To fund this ambitious project, CDOT recently sent a letter of interest to the US Department of Transportation for a loan through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act program. And, as with the Bloomingdale, the city is looking for private sponsors to help bankroll ongoing maintenance and programming on the riverwalk. If CDOT is invited to apply for the TIFIA loan soon, construction on the section from State to LaSalle could start as early as this summer, Woods said. “I’m aggressively optimistic.”

After the floor was opened to questions and comments, Michael Riordan, president of the River North Residents Association, brought up the subject of the riverwalk’s potential as a commuting route for people on foot and bicycles. Here’s a transcript of the discussion.

Michael Riordan: I can see this as being a pedestrian commuter route for people who live and work in the Loop. I walk to work as much as possible and I think it will be a terrific amenity. [Riordan added that he’d like to see an extension of the existing river path along the North Branch from Chicago Avenue to Erie Street, leading south to the riverwalk.] And I was hoping that your design would incorporate some kind of connection that will allow people to take the riverwalk from the lakefront to Franklin Street, and then take Franklin to the Wolf Point development, and up along the North Branch.”

Michelle Woods: What you’d be able to do is walk down to the riverwalk at Michigan, continue along and then come up the steps at Franklin and cross over the river. Or you could go up at Lake Street if you wanted to go to the Ogilvie [Transportation] Center.

MR: Are you incorporating bicycles into this?

MW: [The riverwalk is] technically not wide enough to be a bike path. But what I anticipate is that early in the morning, commuters that use the Lakefront Trail will probably use it as a bicycle path, which frankly I am fine with them doing provided it’s not ten o’clock in the morning and filled with families and people who are using it.

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Michelle Woods. Photo: John Greenfield.

MR: Provided it doesn’t become a Grand Avenue and Lake Shore Drive kind of mess.

MW: Exactly. We’ve become almost the victims of our own success in that the Lakefront Trail is so incredibly popular you almost can’t use it because it’s too crowded. So we want to be careful about things like that. What I’m encouraging bikers to do is, once they come to the west side of Michigan, is take the driveway from the old ward yard [up to Wacker at Wabash Street]. That’s a nice easy transition area to the street grid.

As the department of transportation, we want to promote connectivity for transportation amenities. If you came downtown on Metra, where would be a good spot for a water taxi dock [on the riverwalk]? Where are the connections to bus routes to an ‘L’ station? We’re coming out with bike share soon. Where would be a good spot for a bike share [kiosk]? So there’s a lot of opportunity.

MR: [Suggests building a bridge from Wolf Point to Lake and Canal streets that would provide a shortcut for people walking to the Ogilvie Center and Union Station.] If that could be incorporated in some way with the bridge you’re designing at Franklin Street, that would be a really neat opportunity to create something like the Millennium Bridge in London.


View Chicago Riverwalk Extension in a larger map

Riverwalk area shown as blue line; Riordan’s proposed bridge is orange line.

MW: Are you saying you don’t like my existing bridges? [Laughs.]

MR: No I like your existing bridges. I like where you’re going, but think bigger thoughts. And don’t think just south side of the river. Think about how you’re going to connect all those people that live on the north side of the river who work on the south side of the river, and all those people that are using the riverwalk as a pass-through to get from Michigan Avenue, Streeterville and Northwestern Memorial Hospital to the train stations.

MW: Like I said, those connections are critical and we have been challenged to figure out ways we can promote them and make them easier for people.

  • A bridge connecting Lake Street to Wolf Point would definitely increase pedestrian and bicycle connections, and better connect the Wolf Point towers development, providing a SECOND (yes, there is only one way to get to the proposed development) access point.

  • On this icy morning, it’s nice to imagine breezy summer walks by the river. Last summer I took visiting relatives on an architecture boat tour and we picked our way along the river as much as possible on our walk to get there. They loved it. I can’t wait for more seamless connections to and access along this underused “transportation corridor.”

  • It will definitely be cool to see Chicago’s riverwalk getting as much use the riverfronts in San Antonio and Milwaukee.

  • Any word on how they plan to repay the TIFIA loan? $100M is a lot of money to raise through donations and concession contracts.

  • Elie

    I would love if, as briefly mentioned, the river walk was extended to Chicago Ave. It seems that the plan is to make a section of the river walk that is already fairly developed and accessible more developed and accessible. While I am excited about making this section even better, I’d love to see undeveloped portions of the river opened to the public.

  • One big change with the new riverwalk is it will be possible to walk along the river from the lakefront to Lake Street. Right now you have to up to street level at State Street.

  • TIF for TIFIA. I don’t actually know. This project was mentioned at Active Transportation Alliance’s Transit Summit this past Monday. Half the summit was about governance and the other half about funding.

  • cjlane

    “there is only one way to get to the proposed development”

    First, there was an access point eliminate bc of (correct, and validated) complaints about the Kinzie access.

    Second, from the current renders, there are two pedestrian access points, other than Wolf Point Plaza Drive, along the riverwalk, to Kinzie and to Orleans.

    Third, there are two additional truck/delivery access point, from lower Kinzie and Lower Orleans.

    So, I don’t know how that adds up to “only one way”.

  • I was talking about pedestrian and bicycling connections. I excluded Kinzie because there’s not a pedestrian path proposed in the Apparel Mart property to connect Kinzie to the Wolf Point property.

    There’s a sidewalk along the river in the Apparel Mart property (that gets disconnected at the Carroll Avenue railroad bridge) but there’s no connection from it to Kinzie that doesn’t involved walking through a truck loading area and parking lot.

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