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City gets $100 million federal loan that mayor says will make riverwalk into next Millennium Park

Artist rendering city's plans complete Chicago Riverwalk. The Cove between Dearborn Clark.

Artist rendering of the city's plans to complete the Chicago Riverwalk. The Cove between Dearborn and Clark.

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Updated: May 1, 2013 2:43PM

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s dream of turning a six-block stretch of the downtown Chicago riverfront into an enticing riverwalk that rivals San Antonio’s will finally become a reality, thanks to a $100 million federal loan awarded Thursday.

In one of his final acts as U.S. Transportation secretary, former Illinois congressman Ray LaHood came back home to announce the $100 million loan that Mayor Rahm Emanuel hopes will transform the riverwalk into Chicago’s next great public space that will rival Millennium Park.

LaHood described the project as a “done deal” and said he was absolutely confident in the city’s plan to retire the $100 million loan.

“The financial stability of this project is solid. It’s a matter now of finishing up the paperwork,” LaHood said.

“This riverwalk will become another economic corridor in downtown Chicago for small business.”

Emanuel said it’s time to “re-introduce” Chicagoans to the Chicago River and realize the riverfront’s true potential to become the city’s next recreational frontier.

“It’s no longer just a dream or a drawing on the board. It’s now becoming a reality,” the mayor said.

Emanuel and his Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein were somewhat sketchy on where the revenues will come from to repay a 35-year loan with no payment schedule until construction that is scheduled to start in 2014 is completed two years later.

“A little over 70 percent of the revenues will come from … the existing tour boat fees, which were re-bid last year. Right there, we’ve got the bulk of it covered,” Klein said.

“We’ve got retail leasing. We’ve got various other advertising and sponsorship opportunities, which we’re not even heavily counting on. And we’ve been extremely conservative in our estimates on revenues purposely because we knew we’d have to go through a very rigorous process, which we have, with” the U.S. Transportation Department.”

Asked whether the Chicago River was likely to see a lot more advertising and boat traffic to repay the loan, Klein said, “No. Any additional advertising would be very tasteful and very limited. … [And] right now, it’s just using the existing two [boat] slips.”

Emanuel predicted that 400 people would be put to work building the riverwalk from State Street west to Lake and that 400 permanent jobs would be created to operate the restaurants, bars and entertainment space that will be created.

“Our downtown has changed. It’s the fastest growing commercial-residential area in the country — by a factor of three. Nobody’s even close. And the riverwalk will now create and complement what’s gonna be a 500-apartment building right there on the riverfront. It will change all the [property] values here — both commercial and residential,” the mayor said. “Our city is changing and we need to change with it to accentuate the economic opportunity and potential of the city.”

On display at Thursday’s news conference were “conceptual ideas” and catchy names for each of the six blocks between State and Wells that run along Wacker Drive and the Chicago River.

State to Dearborn would be known as “The Marina,” with restaurants and public seating that allows people to while away their time watching commercial and recreational boat traffic along the river.

Dearborn to Clark would be turned into “The Cove,” featuring kayak rentals and a dock for “human-powered watercraft.” Clark to LaSalle would be turned into a heavily landscaped “River Theater” with a wide staircase to Upper Wacker Drive.

Kids who love to splash around in chlorinated and “zero-depth” public fountains would be able to do just that in the one-block stretch from LaSalle to Wells, to be known as, “The Swimming Hole.”

Wells to Franklin would be turned into “The Jetty,” described as a place to learn about the “ecology of the Chicago River” complete with floating gardens and piers for fishing.

And Franklin to Lake would be known as “The Boardwalk,” described as the site of an “iconic bridge” that would bring people from Upper Wacker down to the riverwalk level while surrounded by “floating gardens and landscaping.”

Daley’s plan to build a San Antonio-style riverwalk initially called for the city to spend up to $50 million in federal funds to build a river-level boardwalk from Michigan to Lake that would have included 35,500 square feet of retail and restaurant space, along with docks for tour boats and water taxis.

When the work was done, the city would have turned the riverwalk over to a private management company.

But when Daley tried to tackle the project in one fell swoop, only one company responded to the request for proposals. City Hall decided to toss out the lone bid and restart the competition in smaller bites.

After filling in the “missing links” in the Wacker Drive riverwalk, the city agreed in 2009 to design the rest — even though Chicago taxpayers still didn’t have the money to build it.

The Daley administration issued a “request for proposals” from firms interested in designing the final phase of the riverwalk — the six-block stretch between State and Lake streets. It was those concepts that the city plans to follow.

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