The River Theater’s Ramps Let People on Wheels Make a Grand Entrance

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It’s fairly easy to bike down to the water via the new ramps. Photo: John Greenfield

With the Friday opening of the Chicago Riverwalk’s third new section, dubbed The River Theater, wheelchair users, families with strollers, and bicyclists have a new way to get down to the riverfront from Upper Wacker. This segment, located between Clark and LaSalle, consists almost entirely of stair-stepped, amphitheater-style seating. However, the steps are split up by gently graded, ADA-compliant ramps that zigzag back and forth across the stately new public space.

As you can see from this video, the ramps work fairly well for bicycling, although they’re narrow enough that cyclists need to be especially mindful about yielding to people in wheelchairs and pedestrians. But, overall, the ramps are an elegant solution for providing access.

The concrete steps, while Spartan, are a comfortable place to perch with a pleasant view of the waterway, and the space is sure to be popular with people eating lunch and relaxing on nice days. I visited this afternoon, shortly after a downpour, so the steps were sparsely populated.

Unlike the two next sections of the riverwalk that debuted earlier this month, The Marina and The Cove, most of the River Theater’s shoreline does not allow easy access to the water, since it’s located a few feet above the surface and fenced off. However, there is a staircase at the east end of the space leading down to the water for boat access.

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A river taxi and a tour boat pass by The River Theater

The River Theater will be an ideal venue for live performances, which are being booked by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. On Sunday, May 21, as part of the Make Music Festival, the Chicago Academy of Piping and Drumming will perform there at 1 p.m. and the Chicago Philharmonic Brass will perform at 3 p.m. There will also be live music that day at The Cove, The Marina, and the riverside Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with performers ranging from a Mariachi band to a cabaret group to a steel drum ensemble.

Jai Cruz, relaxing on the steps with a friend from out of town, gave The River Theater a thumbs-up. “It’s pretty fantastic,” he said. “I like the architectural views that it has to offer, and that they’re going to be offering bands on the weekends for the tourists and for those of us who live in the city.” He added that the ramps are a nice touch. “It makes it pretty convenient for people on bikes to go up and down.”

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Photo: John Greenfield

In other riverwalk news, the bike rental companies WanderBikes, and Wheel Fun Rentals are now operating on the riverwalk, along with a kayak rental concession and a boat tour company. The Marina and The Cove recently gained a winery, a Belgian beer-and-frites joint and – near and dear to my heart – a tiki bar.

In a few weeks, the Chicago Department of Transportation will begin work on the next three “rooms” of the riverwalk, between LaSalle and Lake Street. These sections are slated to be completed in 2016, after which it will be possible to walk or bike all the way from the West Loop to Lake Michigan without crossing streets.

  • Jack

    just to be clear, as an architect and bicycle enthusiast I think the ‘Theater’ room is awesome, but although the ramp is easily navigable, the city/government does not have to strictly follow the ADA and this ramp does not meet the ADA guidelines for a variety of reasons…

  • Gary

    I’m a bicyclist, pedestrian, and dog owner/walker, enjoying all three, and love Riverwalk. However, bicycling on a crowded Riverwalk really doesn’t work very well. Naturally, cyclists move faster (often at totally inappropriate speeds through pedestrian traffic and with attitude), pedestrians tend to walk side by side and dogs on leashes, well, act on dogs on leashes. This mix increasingly appears to require restrictions on or elimination of bicycles from Riverwalk, especially west of Columbus.

  • Look for a post about why the riverwalk path was designed the way it was next Monday. Banning bikes may not be an option due to the fact the riverwalk extension was funded with a federal transportation loan.

  • Interesting. How does the ramp not meet the ADA guidelines, and why wouldn’t this need to be ADA compliant?

  • Gary

    John, You may well be right. The answer may be to insist on good manners from bicyclists meaning that they blend into the pace, rather than trying to speed through pods of pedestrians. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if a bicyclist had to walk the bike through crowded sections of Riverwalk and if they can’t tolerate that pace, ride on Wacker Drive.

  • Three Green Kashira

    shouldn’t the bottom part of the ramp have metal hand rails, too?

  • Jeremy

    The walkways under the bridges have right angles. That may have been done to slow down bike traffic, or at least to prevent people from using the space as a training course for races.

  • Zach

    I imagine the current setup would be pretty bad for someone in a wheelchair, with the lack of guardrails. I hope ADA would require some sort of barrier to prevent you from tumbling down the stairs into the river.

  • Kevin Mulcahy

    Not an expert here- but there would at least need to be more frequent rest stops on the ramp to be more wheelchair friendly

  • Jack

    the other posts pretty much sum it up… ADA requires flat rest stops every so-many feet and continuous handrails along all of the sloped portions… the government reserves the right to not comply is just how it is as far as I know…

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