Chicago’s new Riverwalk is worth a dip

IMG_5014From the Saturday,  June 20, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


By Dave Wischnowsky

Freshwater is a wonderful resource.

Just ask California.

But as anyone still drying out this weekend along the banks of the swollen Kankakee, La Salle and Fox rivers can surely attest, water also poses problems.

Up in Chicago, for example, the lake truly is great – except when its cooling effect drops downtown temperatures into the brisk 50s while they’re in the balmy 80s out in the burbs.

The adjacent Chicago River is a similarly great asset – except when it transforms a gleaming new stretch of the city’s Riverwalk into a literal walk in the river like it did this past Monday evening when nearly three inches of rain hammered down on Chicago.

After a stormy Sunday, Monday’s sudden June monsoon caused floodwaters to rise high enough to submerge multiple tiers of steps along the new Chicago Riverwalk just days after it had officially opened. Once the water had receded by Tuesday morning, the Chicago Tribune reported that large swaths of the pathway were caked with a dark brown substance along with random debris such as baseballs, driftwood and liquor bottles.

In other words, the contents of Al Capone’s vault.

Where’s Geraldo when you need him?

By noontime on Tuesday the Riverwalk, which allows visitors to now sit and stroll along almost at water level, was reopened to the public. City officials issued assurances that it was constructed with materials that can withstand the occasional flood, and Chicago architect Carol Ross Barney, who worked on the project, said, “ It was designed, after a power wash, to go right back into service.”

On Wednesday morning, when I made my second visit to the Riverwalk this month, that power washing was still taking place beneath some of the bridges, but overall the space looked grand. This new section, which runs along a three-block stretch of Wacker Drive, from State Street to LaSalle Street, represents the first part of a $110 million westward extension of the previously underutilized public space. When completed late next year, the expansion will create a continuous 1¼ -mile pedestrian and bike path all the way from Lake Michigan to Lake Street.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already touted the project as his equivalent to Millennium Park, and I won’t argue with him about that. Because, when it’s not underwater, the new Riverwalk is a burgeoning civic gem. In fact, it reminded me a great deal of the wonderful public space along the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia – a city that would surprise you in its similarities to Chicago.

Down in Melbourne, where I honeymooned in 2013, cafes, beer stands and plentiful outdoor seating areas are nestled all along the banks of the Yarra, creating an intimacy with the river waters that we’ve never truly enjoyed in Chicago – until now.

By visiting the new Chicago Riverwalk, you’ll be amazed with just how close you can now get to the edge of the water (hence, that flooding). And surrounded by gleaming skyscrapers on either side, it’s a magical experience made all the better by the new food, drink and seating amenities opening along the banks. Already, City Winery and Flander’s Belgian Beer & Fries have opened seasonal waterfront cafes with more new businesses in the works.

With sweeping wooden benches and spacious concrete steps and seating rising up to street level, the Riverwalk is quickly becoming a destination for the downtown lunchtime crowd. New mirrors beneath the bridges that reflect the river waters only add to the ethereal atmosphere.

It’s already worth a visit, even though the Riverwalk remains a work in progress – and once it really gets its feet wet, it’ll be a great treasure.

Just be sure to avoid it when can get your feet wet too.