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.

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The Chicago Riverwalk extension might not have gotten built if it didn’t function as a car-free transportation corridor as well as a space for recreation. The project was funded through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act program, which provided a $98 million loan. The project also received $10 million in state […]