Monday, July 14, 2014

How do we lure tourists to the Riverwalk? Beer.

     Walking along Wacker Drive, I of course noticed the Riverwalk construction, and thought it might be fun to write a column telling people about what was going on, perhaps skimming the most interesting technical aspects. But prying those details out of the city proved difficult; rather than guide me through the project, they were satisfied with the chief engineer briefly describing it to me. Luckily, he mentioned the need for Congressional approval to narrow the river, and that seemed a strong enough hook to hang the thing from.     

     Getting the work permits, as every homeowner knows, is the tough part for any renovation project.  Pouring a new concrete patio is child’s play compared to arranging the city paperwork to do it.
     So a tip of the hat to the Riverwalk construction folks, who are proceeding furiously on the south bank of the Chicago River along Wacker Drive, a project that needed not one, but two official acts of the U.S. Congress in order to happen. Given that Congress on most days seems as if it couldn’t pass a law to declaring the American flag pretty, that’s saying something.
     The first was required by 33 U.S. Code Chapter 9, PROTECTION OF NAVIGABLE WATERS AND OF HARBOR AND RIVER IMPROVEMENTS GENERALLY SubChapter I, Section 403: “The creation of any obstruction not affirmatively authorized by Congress, to the navigable capacity of any of the waters of the United States is prohibited; and it shall not be lawful to build or commence the building of any wharf, pier, dolphin, boom, weir, breakwater, bulkhead, jetty, or other structures in any port, roadstead, haven, harbor, canal,  navigable river...”
     A “dolphin” a pier not attached to shore.
     Doesn’t mention “riverwalk,” but the city can’t go sticking promenades out into the river without federal approval which—miribile dictu—was granted: permission to move the south bank 20 feet to the north, under the bridges, and 25 feet between them.
     And the second Congressional okay was the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which provided the $98 million needed to pay for it all.
     A loan, alas, to be repaid over 35 years, through dockage and usage fees, according to the city (hmmm, that’s ... about $3 million a year, or about $10,000 a day, 365 days a year for 35 years. Quite a lot really).
     I visited the site Wednesday with Daniel Burke, chief engineer at the Department of
Daniel Burke
Transporation; we looked out at a clutter of cranes, gravel and corrugated steel barriers.

Won’t narrowing the river affect navigation, as various Wendellas, barges and schools of kayakers jockey for position?
     “We worked very closely through the whole process with the United States Coast Guard and a number of river user  stakeholder groups,” Burke said. “There was a comprehensive study done of  traffic on the Chicago River. While we’re proud there’s quite a bit of traffic and usage, we feel there’s plenty of capacity and clearance.”
     That seems true; even with the construction barges,  various derricks and supplies, blocking nearly half of the river, a steady stream of boats had no trouble slipping by.
Work began in December, 2013, and three blocks of the Riverwalk are under construction now, from State to LaSalle—the State Street bridge will be closed to traffic all week, beginning Monday. This phase should be done by Christmas. The next stage will push the Riverwalk west then turn south, the three blocks from LaSalle to Lake, making a promenade of about a mile and a half.
     Now that I think of it, perhaps the Congressional passage should be expected. This has been a priority for Rahm Emanuel. The first time I spoke to Rahm after he was elected three years ago, I asked what he wanted to do most as mayor, what his legacy should be. He surprised me by saying he wanted to complete the Riverwalk. At the time, it seemed to be setting his sights low, and more recently he denied saying it (though he did) and picked grander goals.
     Will it become the tourist destination he envisions? My impression, the rare times I’ve wandered down to the finished portion by the Vietnam Memorial at Wabash, is the area is sort of forlorn. The new configuration won’t allow bicycles. How to lure folks there? I would suggest food; rather than stick the kind of generic churro and candied nuts carts found at Navy Pier (or, in case it has to be said, eyeing the Park Grill fiasco, instead of tapping some connected mayoral foodie pal) they need to enlist purveyors of  distinctive, hard-to-find Chicago cuisine: Rainbow Cones , Skrine Chops, The Doughnut Vault and such treats that would send people scrambling along the river.
     Three Floyds Beer. Now there’s a thought. Suspend the open container law, like at Taste. Let people buy craft brews and stroll along the river. That’ll get them packing bags in Des Moines and Hammond. If Congress can pass a few laws, I’m sure our City Council is up to it, with a kick-in-the pants from the mayor. Ten grand a day in fees is a big nut to crack. It would be a shame to go through all the paperwork and trouble to build a sidewalk jutting into the Chicago River then not have anyone show up. 


  1. "Won’t narrowing the river affect navigation, as various Wendellas, barges and schools of kayakers jockey for position?" Sigh. As a tour guide for Shoreline Sightseeing river architecture tours, one wishes you would have written " various tour boats, barges and..." But I get it, Wendella was out there first. First: the riverwalk construction is causing congestion but the riverwalk itself is a boon overall. Second: it may be time for NS to contact Yours Truly to bring a guest along for a gratis tour with me at Shoreline some weekend day soon.

    1. Sorry about that. Force of habit. I've actually taken your tour -- I've been on all the boats that ply the river. But it has been a long time. Maybe you should contact me:

  2. Great idea re: craft beer, but why go all the way to Indiana? Half Acre, Revolution, Lagunitas, and a dozen others are within the city limits! Also, Rainbow Cone has a W. The Rainbo Club on Damen lacks it.

  3. The river really isn't narrowed by the river walk, since the bridge piers already stick into the river & narrow it.

    1. As would be the case, if the Riverwalk weren't extending another 20 feet BEYOND the piers, requiring new piers, narrowing the river.

  4. San Antonio did this--have great restaurants along its Riverwalk--a long time ago. No reason why Chicago can't do the same.


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