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Editorial: Dreaming big along the river

An artist’s rendering an extended  riverwalk between Clark LSalle.

An artist’s rendering of an extended riverwalk between Clark and La Salle.

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Updated: November 10, 2012 6:14AM

Plans for a people-friendly downtown riverwalk have surfaced over the years with the regularity of the locks opening and closing on the Chicago River.

A century ago, Daniel Burnham urged beautifying the river by removing rows of wharves and warehouses. The first Mayor Daley famously predicted a day when Chicagoans could fish along the riverbanks.

In 1990, the second Mayor Daley’s administration dreamed up a riverfront lined with trees, cafes, marinas, nightlife, natural vistas and perhaps even a waterfall. And seven years later, the City Council earmarked $14 million for a 1.25-mile pedestrian walkway along the river from Van Buren to 18th Street, a walkway that remains unbuilt.

So it wasn’t exactly unprecedented when the city released concepts on Monday to extend the riverwalk westward with a $90-million-to-$100-million section from La Salle to Lake Street. We can only hope this plan doesn’t join so many others that have largely gathered dust.

The problem is typically money, and that issue hasn’t gone away. Our first thought on gazing at the new architectural renderings: How will we pay for this, particularly at a time when Chicago’s 2013 budget deficit is projected at about $300 million and the Chicago Public Schools’ budget deficit for next year is estimated at $1 billion?

The city has submitted a letter of interest to the U.S. Department of Transportation for funding and is exploring public-private partnerships, but that’s a long way from actually getting our hands on any money.

Still, we suspect that hoopla around Monday’s announcement indicates that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is serious about completing the project and thinks he can find the money needed to pull it off.

“It’s a plan that’s essential,” Emanuel said, noting that he campaigned on the idea of the river as the city’s “next recreational frontier.”

Putting aside the question of funding, there was much to like about the conceptual ideas released Monday, which responded to requests for proposals dating back to the Daley administration. The designs, based partly on community input over the past few years, reveal something that would be uniquely Chicago, not simply copied from riverwalks elsewhere.

Money remains an issue. But we’re glad it hasn’t stopped Chicago from thinking big.

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