Chicago’s Lesser-Known Downtown Riverwalk To Be Spruced Up

Back when we first started publishing this publication, coming home to Lakeshore East after a late night of community meetings often meant dodging rats along the south bank of the Chicago River, then squishing through mud to thread a passage between walls of rusting corrugated steel, a city auto impound lot, and weed-choked lots.

The “old” Riverwalk has improved since then.  Seeds have been planted for various businesses along the riverbank, to varying degrees of success.  The lighting is occasionally improved, but then degrades rather rapidly.  And there are still the ever-present glimpses of scurrying rats and the whiff of 200 years of industrial funk in the air.  But hopefully that will soon change.

The city announced a plan to throw a few bones to the old section of the Riverwalk — east of Michigan Avenue, south of North Water Street, and north of South Water Street — to be completed by 2020.

While the city and CDOT have been pouring millions into a very successful program to erect riparian delights along the waterway’s main channel, the focus has been on the more heavily trafficked core Loop area.  Now with the massive Vista Tower getting ready to come alive, the potential for three huge new skyscrapers in the northeast corner of Lakeshore East, and even more development coming to adjacent areas, it’s time to finally get around to mucking out the shed.

Old Riverwalk improvement area (base image via Apple Maps)

Old Riverwalk improvement area (base image via Apple Maps)

Unfortunately, half of the city’s $10 million effort is aimed at the immediate Michigan Avenue area.  While it is the most heavily trafficked by tourists, it is also the area least in need of improvement.

The city plans to reconfigure the area east of Michigan Avenue with a number of items, including a gateway structure, more landscaping, more street furniture, and some kind of a “visual screen” to pretend that  Lower Wacker Drive doesn’t exist.

That’s pretty ambitious for a plaza that already has congestion problems.  It’s where some of the Chicago River cruise boats load tourists, and where those tourists buy tickets for the ride.  Joggers’ Fitbits already have fits at this bit of the Riverwalk, as they try to keep a non-walking pace surrounded by dozens of people doing the zombie shuffle while taking selfies.

On the other side of the bridge, the city wants more public seating (yay!) and more retail in something called “Michigan Avenue Market.”  The city describes it as a “market to complement current concessions program to highlight neighborhood businesses.”  Unless the market is indoors, and the neighborhood business are alcohol-based, this is going to be another example of City Hall optimists discounting a little thing called “winter.”

Meanwhile, on the needy side of the bridge, the city wants to spruce up the landscaping and seating along the entire stretch, especially at the Lake Shore Drive gateway where a viewing area will be created so people can admire the murals.

The Columbus Drive area will get much needed drainage improvements, which will hopefully help with the airborne funk, and the Field Drive area nets both a play area for the wee ones and a potential “submarine memorial,” which is probably some kind of underwater display area, and not a plaque commemorating the way the Department of Defense used to use the Chicago River to move submarines around.


Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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