The Main Branch of the Chicago River has a long and storied history that in many ways mirrors the development of Chicago itself. Once a meandering marshy stream, the river became an engineered channel to support the industrial transformation of the city. Following the famed reversal of the river, in which the city reversed the flow of the Main Branch and South Branch to improve sanitation, urban planner Daniel Burnham introduced a new civic vision of riverside promenades with the addition of the Wacker Drive Viaduct. For the last 30 years, the role of the river has evolved once again with the Chicago Riverwalk project—an initiative to reclaim the Chicago River for the ecological and recreational benefit of the city.
The goal of embracing the river as a fishable and swimmable recreational amenity seemed impossible years ago given the river's high levels of pollution. But today that vision is becoming a reality. Recent improvements in river water quality and the increased intensity of public recreational river use signal growing life along the river, and demand new connections with the water's edge. Heeding this call, the Chicago Department of Transportation began implementing the Riverwalk, completing portions of the system that include very successful new spaces like the Veteran’s Memorial Plaza and Wabash Plaza.
In 2012, Sasaki, along with Ross Barney Architects, Alfred Benesch Engineers, and a broader technical consultant team, was tasked with creating a vision for the six blocks between State Street and Lake Street. Building off previous studies, the team’s Chicago Riverwalk Concept Plan provides the last, critical link between the lake, the city’s circulation, and the river’s urban branches.
The task at hand was technically challenging. The team, for instance, needed to work within a tight 25-foot-wide permitted river build-out area to expand the pedestrian program spaces and had to negotiate a series of under-bridge connections. 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 system. Rather than an architecturally-driven path system comprised of 90-degree turns, the team reconceived the path as a more independent system—one that, through changes in its shape and form, could drive a series of new programmatic connections.
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 river spaces include:
The Marina Plaza: Restaurants and public seating provide views of vibrant life on the water, including barges, fire department patrols, water taxis, and sightseeing boats.
The Cove: Kayak rentals and docking for human-powered crafts provide physical connections to the water through recreation.
The River Theater: A sculptural staircase linking Upper Wacker and the Riverwalk offers pedestrian connectivity, while trees provide greenery and shade.
The Swimming Hole: A fountain offers the opportunity for children and families to engage with water at the river’s edge.
The Jetty: A series of piers and floating wetland gardens offers an interactive learning environment about the ecology of the river, including fish, frogs, and native plants.
The Boardwalk: An iconic bridge with references to the maritime history of the river connects pedestrians to Upper Wacker at Lake Street.
As a connected path system, the concept plan's framework provides both continuity and variety. The distinct programs and forms of each typological space allow for diverse experiences on the river ranging from dining opportunities to expansive public event programming to new amenities for human-powered craft. At the same time, design details provide visual cohesion along the entire segment. Paving, for instance, mirrors the contrasts of the existing context. A refined cut stone follows the elegant Beaux-Arts Wacker Viaduct and Bridgehouse architecture, while a more rugged precast plank flanks the lower elevations and underside of the exposed steel bridges.
The team is now in the process of construction documentation for the first three blocks of the Chicago Riverwalk.