An ideas lab startup is playing a key role in creating visions for future extensions of the newly revived Chicago Riverwalk

BY SANDRA GUY

sandraguykolina@gmail.com

A privately sponsored startup — an ideas lab — is playing a key role in creating visions for future extensions of the newly revived Chicago Riverwalk.

The extensions would take the Riverwalk past downtown and the South Loop to Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park.

Visions for the expansion created by nine architectural firms will be unveiled Sept. 16 at the Expo 72 gallery space at 72 E. Randolph St.

The architectural firms’ creative plans are part of an effort called the Chicago Urban River Edge Ideas Lab, a joint effort of the City of Chicago and the Metropolitan Planning Council. A teaser page for the Ideas Lab is at www.ChiRiverLab.com

The project stems from the Great Rivers Chicago initiative, whose long-term goals include a river walk or trail into the south, west and north suburbs. Such an extensive trail would link the Chicago River to the Calumet and Des Plaines rivers by 2040, as outlined in the initiative’s website at http://www.greatriverschicago.com/.

The first phase of the project, to extend the downtown Riverwalk to the river’s South Branch, prompted the River Edge Ideas Lab to hire nine architectural firms to design their visions of what that might look like.  

The architectural firms are Adjaye Associates, James Corner Field Operations, Perkins+Will, Ross Barney Architects, Sasaki, Site Design, SOM, Studio Gang Architects and SWA. The ideas lab is sponsored by Comcast, the Driehaus Foundation and real-estate developer Related Midwest.

The results will be displayed to the public at the Expo 72 gallery from Sept. 16 until Jan. 7 as part of the second Chicago Architecture Biennial.

“This is a preliminary phase to get people talking,” said Josh Ellis, vice president at the Metropolitan Planning Council. “We’re interested in people’s responses. Are they excited? What aspects do they like the most?”

The project doesn’t yet have a capital budget to start work on the favorite of the nine proposals.

A river trail along on the South Branch would enable public access to the river next to the Riverline development and other new residential construction taking place just west of Dearborn Park.

Before airplane transportation vaunted O’Hare International Airport to the world’s fourth busiest in passenger traffic, Grand Central Station—on a block bounded by Harrison, Polk and Wells—served as a key entryway into Chicago, and included offices, a next-door hotel and enormous archways high enough for traffic to pass underneath. The train station’s architect, Solon Spencer Beman, designed the Pullman railroad car factory and historic landmark community on Chicago’s Far South Side.

The train station, demolished in 1971, is now a vacant plot overgrown with high grass and trees.

But it’s also a prime property, just north of two high-rise apartment developments under construction that look to transform the Printer’s Row and River City neighborhoods into a more densely populated cityscape.

The vacant lot is slated to become part of the $1.5 billion Riverline redevelopment. It is the final empty site to be redeveloped among Chicago’s six former terminal railroad stations built in the mid- to late 19th Century. Ward Miller remembers watching pheasants take flight on a grand expanse of prairie as he looked out the train window after leaving Union Station headed to Springfield.

The wildlife rustling from among the tall grass was a common sight, especially in late summer and early fall, some 20 years ago surrounding the train yards just south and west of Dearborn Park.

“The (pheasants’) wingspans were amazing, and I thought it was such an incredible sight to see in what was, at the time, an industrial area of Chicago,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, which seeks to save historic landmarks, buildings and neighborhoods.

The construction marks the second time in nearly 40 years that the neighborhoods have been eyed for high-rise living. The area, just west of the historic Prairie House Row landmark district, extends from Roosevelt on the south, Harrison on the north, Financial Place on the east and the Chicago River on the west.

Together, the two high-rises under construction would add 4,100 rental units to the neighborhood of 25,000 mostly white-collar professionals, and cost a combined $1.6 billion.

The late Mayor Jane Byrne nixed an original proposal by utopian architect Bertrand Goldberg, Marina City and Drexel Gardens’ designer, which envisioned building 72-story-high skyscrapers with sky bridges linking the towers and encompassing schools, apartments and shopping centers.

Byrne sought to keep Printer’s Row a low-density neighborhood that would attract families who otherwise would flee to the suburbs. The result: The first urban conversions of former industrial space into residential lofts and condos. This was a first for Chicago, starting in the mid-1970s, and set a precedent for River North, the West Loop, Greektown and, indeed, the nation, Miller said.

Goldberg settled for what is now River City, an S-shaped futuristic structure at 800 S. Wells that resembles a series of rippling mid-rise buildings along the south branch of the Chicago River, much like Marina City two decades earlier.

The second delay resulted from the Great Recession of 2008 and the resulting housing and construction crisis.

Developers and local residents say it’s time that high-rises fill in the property that has long laid vacant just a few blocks west of the former Dearborn Station, now an arcade of shops, offices and restaurants.

The high rises are The Alta Roosevelt, a 33-story rental high-rise with 496 units at 801 S. Financial Place, and Riverline, a 14-acre development with 3,600 homes bounded by Harrison on the north, Roosevelt on the south, Wells on the east and the Chicago River to the west.

The Alta Roosevelt, just south of Polk Street and west of the Metra rail tracks, will add a mix of studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom rentals on land that’s been used for parking lots over the years. It is slated for Fall move-ins, and includes 347 parking spaces, a swimming pool, outdoor plazas and a green space atop a three-story podium partly tucked under the tower, said Adam Lavey of project architect Pappageorge Haymes Partners.

Riverline’s construction is in its first phase, called Ancora – a 28-story tower that will house 452 apartments and a 230-vehicle parking garage. Ancora and an 18-story highrise, called Current, with 251 apartments, are slated to open in Spring 2018. The development will also include nine three-story townhouses.

Residents interviewed about the construction say they’re ready for new neighbors. They believe the area needs more restaurants, shopping choices and the enhanced property values those amenities bring.

“I think it’s great for the area, and will raise my apartment’s and others’ value,” said six-year resident Alessandra Bonasera, a 36-year-old mother strolling her 17-month-old daughter, Claire.

“I think it sets the stage for Printer’s Row to become the new Michigan Avenue with a great variety of shops and restaurants,” said Bonasera, who also has a 4-year-old son, Marco.

Namanjaba Mabula, 38, the general manager at Eleven City Diner, 1112 S. Wabash, said he’s not bothered by the construction noise near his home in the Burnham Pointe building at 730 S. Clark.

“If you live in this area, you know it’s busy, it’s noisy – it’s the city,” said Mabula, who moved to Printer’s Row from Old Town two years ago to be close to work.

Bailey Street, 20, a part-time dog walker and rising senior majoring in dance and live performance arts management, said she likes the neighborhood feel of Printer’s Row.

Street, who has lived there for three years, said she looks forward to a greater variety of restaurants and other amenities along with the apartment developments.

But long-time community activist Gail Merritt, co-founder of the Alliance for a Greener South Loop, says she is concerned that the high-rises, complete with indoor gyms and dog runs, will insulate the new residents walled off from Printer’s Row’s businesses and neighborhood.

“I’m afraid these vertical communities, with all of their self-contained amenities, are being developed to the detriment of the horizontal community,” Merritt said.

She also expressed concern that the new developments do not allow for much more green space than a walkway with green embellishments on the side, even though she noted that the greater density could well boost the use of public transportation.

“I’m personally hoping we can figure out how to wrangle more public green space out of these developments,” said Merritt, whose alliance led efforts to create a community garden just between Polk and Clark streets where Federal Street deadends.

Alderman Danny Solis (25th), whose ward includes the Riverline development, said Printer’s Row stands to benefit from the Wells-Wentworth connector, a $62 million project that will realign Wentworth Avenue between Archer Avenue and Cermak Road, and help lessen congestion from Chinatown into the Loop. The project will ultimately connect Wells to Wentworth between 18th Street and Roosevelt Road.

Solis also advocates a bridge over the Chicago River’s South Branch at Taylor Street to ease congestion at Polk and Clark, and a possible CTA train station near Clark and 16th to accommodate the growing population.