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Editorial: A new river view

Artist rendering city's plans complete Chicago Riverwalk. The Boardwalk from FranklLake St.

Artist rendering of the city's plans to complete the Chicago Riverwalk. The Boardwalk from Franklin to Lake St.

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Updated: May 1, 2013 2:21PM

Year after year, administration after administration, city officials have shown us enticing images of a downtown Riverwalk running west and south to Lake Street, but the architectural sketches gathered dust.

So it was encouraging Thursday to see outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood come to Chicago, a big federal loan in his pocket, and finally say, “It’s a done deal.” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said construction will begin next year and be finished by 2016.

As a new public space with kayak rentals, fountains for kids to splash in and other amenities, the completed Riverwalk will help reconnect Chicagoans to the river, though much more work remains before we realize the goal of early visionaries who called for a ribbon of pedestrian paradise along a stream of clean, flowing water. It’s been decades since the river was an open sewer, but it’s not clean enough.

LaHood said the official Riverwalk announcement won’t come until June because “there are a few t’s to cross.” But he said the federal government is satisfied that the city’s plan for higher fees on architectural tour boats, revenues from retail leasing and possibly some advertising will be sufficient to repay a $100 million federal loan for the project.

That’s good news, because this wasn’t an easy project to get done. The city has been working on the current Riverwalk plans since the 1990s, and similar concepts were discussed as far back as Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration, but until now funding never was found.

Much of the work remaining to make the river cleaner is the responsibility of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The MWRD, along with other local government agencies, needs to commit to a watershed-wide plan to reduce flooding and water pollution; finish the long-running Tunnel and Reservoir Project to stop overflows from sending untreated sewage into the river; push a program already under way to remove nutrients such as phosphorus from the treated wastewater, and do more to encourage people and businesses to keep runoff out of the system.

Emanuel said his goal is to make the Chicago River the city’s “next recreational frontier.”

Thursday’s news gets us a big step closer.

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