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City unveils riverwalk concept, asks feds for help building it

Artist rendering city's plans complete Chicago Riverwalk. The River Theater between Clark LaSalle.

Artist rendering of the city's plans to complete the Chicago Riverwalk. The River Theater between Clark and LaSalle.

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Updated: November 10, 2012 6:14AM

A six-block stretch of the downtown Chicago Riverfront would finally be converted into an enticing riverwalk that rivals the one in San Antonio, thanks to a $100 million concept plan that Chicago still lacks the money to build.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to complete a project his predecessor only dreamed about by tapping federal funds and forging “public-private partnerships” that eluded former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Towards that end, City Hall has submitted a letter of interest to the U.S. Department of Transportation for funding to complete the design work from LaSalle to Lake and build the entire six-block riverwalk for a price tag in the $90 million-to-$100 million range.

The Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act provides credit assistance for infrastructure projects of “regional or national significance.” The feds provide capital to fill “market gaps and leverage other investment” from the private sector.

“I have some ideas that we will be exploring. I want to make sure they work ... to make sure we have the resources,” Emanuel said, when asked where he plans to find the $100 million.

“It’s a plan that’s essential. Open up the river to the city and its residents in a way that it has never been historically. It will be transformative for the city to have a river that is part of the city, rather than walled off. ... Any property along water is 10 percent more valuable. Now, why would you take about 27 miles of riverfront and wall it off from the city?”

But, first things first: The city is unveiling “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.”

At an unrelated City Hall news conference, Emanuel noted that he campaigned on a promise to turn the Chicago River into the city’s “next recreational frontier” — second only to its famous lakefront.

“Historically, the Chicago River was kind of walled-up and was kind of our first industrial highway — and it stayed that way. With two coal-fired power plants now being shut down, there’s gonna be less industrial cargo. I wanted to open it up to kayaking, canoeing, sculling on the river. So, we’re building four boathouses that, by the end of next year, will be open. Now, I want to do downtown,” the mayor said.

“Opening up the river to the city — making it part of our city, rather than walled off and part of the industrial highway — opens up a whole new, not only recreational frontier, [but] a whole new part of the city that people now can experience.”

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.

The lone response came from Wilton Partners, the California company in the eye of a storm for its handling of an $83 million makeover of Illinois’ tollway oases. At the time, tollway officials had received a federal subpoena for those records.

City Hall insisted that the decision to toss out the bid from Wilton Partners — and re-start the competition in smaller bites — had nothing to do with the tollway controversy.

Rather, officials contended that Wilton’s riverwalk bid included an unexpected and unwanted component: office and residential development along the walk. That was “not compatible” with Daley’s long-standing goal of opening treasured space along Chicago’s “second lakefront” to the public, officials said.

The project was then placed in the hands of a citywide riverwalk development committee that included both city and private sector representation. Meanwhile, the city continued to add basic amenities and improvements, piece by piece.

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 released Monday. They were conceived by a team composed of Sasaki Associates, Alfred Benesch & Co., Ross Barney Architects and Jacobs/Ryan Associates.

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