The South Branch of the Chicago River is marked by bridges at every street it meets from Lake all the way down to Harrison. Ten bridges in all, and then suddenly — nothing. Aerial images from Google and Apple Maps clearly show there used to be a bridge at the next junction, Polk Street, and two blocks down at Taylor Street. But they no longer cross the South Branch of the Chicago River.
Over the past couple decades, as the South Loop neighborhood has seen significant development and gentrification, there has been greater and greater demand for the restoration of a bridge at Polk and/or Taylor Streets.
As early as 1890, Taylor Street received an iron, hand-operated swing bridge, previously stationed at Adams Street. Removed in 1899, it was replaced by a more modern Scherzer rolling-lift bridge constructed by the Sanitary District (now the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District) for the City of Chicago that served until 1928, when it, too, was removed.
Meanwhile, a block north, Polk Street received its fifth bridge in 1910. Yes, that is right! There have been five Polk Street Bridges dating back to the first – a hand-me-down pontoon, turntable bridge from Clark Street that was installed in 1854. Three successive swing bridges in 1857, 1869, and 1872 replaced the first. The fifth bridge at Polk Street, shown above, was a Strauss bascule bridge, which opened to traffic in 1910. After a long life, it was removed in 1972. The half-mile stretch of the South Branch between Harrison Street and Roosevelt Road has been without a river crossing for the last forty-plus years.
Incidentally, the designer of the fifth Polk Street Bridge, Joseph Strauss, was a Chicago engineer who is best known as the chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge crossing San Francisco Bay.
There has been talk of a new bridge connecting the South Loop to the west side of the Chicago River for more than a decade. The most tangible evidence of this came out of the Richard M. Daley Administration with the Chicago Plan Commission’s adoption of the Central Area Action Plan (CAAP) in 2009. It proposed the construction of a Polk or Taylor Street Bridge by 2016.
Around that time, the Chicago Department of Transportation undertook the initial Phase I engineering study, and the initial renderings of a design for a third Taylor Street Bridge were developed by the Chicago architectural firm of Muller+Muller.
The CAAP was built upon the 2003 Central Area Plan “to encourage implementation of the policies and projects essential for the Central Area’s effective function, growth and quality of life.” However, the Phase II and Phase III engineering studies and federal approval for this bridge were never completed. Similarly, there has been no update to the CAAP, which also encouraged development of the Chicago Riverwalk.
Under the current administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, it seems doubtful that the City of Chicago intends to pursue a Polk or Taylor Street Bridge anytime soon. The complete CAAP recommendations are still available for download on the City of Chicago website.
The South Loop neighborhood, traditionally dominated by the railroads and manufacturing companies, effectively encases this section of the river’s South Branch between the Congress Parkway and 18th Street similar to one of Hot Doug’s famous links. Recent development on both sides of the river have drawn significant commerce, retail, and residential land use with a subsequent increase in traffic and need for improved transportation. The difficulty with building new bridges is that they come with a significant price tag.
A moveable bridge, which would be required to meet federal waterway requirements of South Branch, could cost $40-60 million dollars, even though it likely would not include any right of way issues, additional road, or viaduct work necessary to complete the street connection. Where this project ranks within City of Chicago priorities let alone financing is unknown.
Early Chicagoans who wanted a bridge at a specific location often formed a bridge committee to gather subscriptions for the bridge, held regular organizing meetings, and recruited business leaders, alderman, and other political leaders to their cause. In those days, the entire bridge, or at least half the cost of construction, was financed by local businesses and landowners.
This process evolved as subscription lists got turned over to the City for collection and payment of the contractors. This turned into special tax assessments on property owners and bond financing. Today municipal financing has become so complex it is very difficult to know specifically how property taxes are used or spent. This leaves the individual citizen feeling mostly powerless to influence City Hall.
Can the residents, new and old, of the South Loop organize themselves into a powerful enough force to make City Hall deliver a bridge? At this point, no. There are several competing groups each promoting themselves as the voice of the South Loop. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope. A look north toward Streeterville reminds us that the Navy Pier Flyover is being built. This was a line item on the 2009 CAAP list along with the Polk and Taylor bridges. And CDOT hasn’t shied away from building new bridges across the Chicago River on the north side in the last decade. But it will take the community and their politicians to draw the agency’s eye to the near south side.