Chicago's Riverfront Comes Alive | Midwest Living

Chicago's Riverfront Comes Alive

The newly expanded Chicago Riverwalk (and a push to clean up the river’s act) is calling crowds to the waterfront.

For generations, the idea of park space on the land surrounding the Chicago River downtown would have been inconceivable. Instead of a sparkling civic gem beckoning residents to its banks, the river has functioned as the most basic of city infrastructure—cargo channel, runoff receptacle, sanitary sewer. “I’m a native Chicagoan,” architect Carol Ross Barney says, “and if I had told my mother we were going to go sit down by the river, she probably would have fainted.” 

But after years of community collaboration, political maneuvering and inspired design work, the riverfront has been reborn. The recent expansion of the Chicago Riverwalk offers more than a mile of uninterrupted waterside walking along the river’s south bank (no more climbing stairs to cross busy streets). Innovative spaces accommodate diverse uses, such as fishing and boating. And restaurants and other businesses are attuned to crowds that now converge on the river to stroll, sight-see, dine or simply gather in this ribbon of urban bliss, a welcome open space offering respite from street-level bustle.

Hoping to echo the impact of the city’s storied lakefront, this second shoreline has prompted a fresh interest in what it might become. A multi-decade revitalization plan aims to improve the river’s health and to find fresh ways for it to deliver municipal and economic benefits. For Carol, whose firm has worked on the Riverwalk project for 15 years, finally reconnecting humans to this stretch of water has been a revelation: “People are looking at the river and understanding what an asset it can be.”

Sculptural Staircase Diagonal swaths slicing through the stairs in the River Theater area serve as an accessible ramp opening the park to all.

River Theater

Park Place Kick back at the confluence of the river’s three branches. (Trivia: The Y-shape stamp on some of the city’s structures is a nod to this area.)

Riverside Park

Domed drinks  Enjoy drinks and snacks with a view in seasonal, climate-controlled bubbles at City Winery. Spots fill quickly, so plan ahead.

City Winery

Plenty of Rooms to Play

Planners divided the new park area into distinct block-long “rooms” that span the riverfront between bridges and cater to specific uses. 

New Park Area Map

Riverbank A wide public lawn overlooks the spot where the North, South and Main branches of the Chicago River meet. Further development is slated for this area in coming years. 

Jetty Ecology education defines this room. Fishing piers jut into the water, and floating gardens with information about native plants bob along the waterfront.

Water Plaza A kid-friendly zero-depth fountain made for splashing is the star of this sun-soaked area. Concessions are available nearby. 

River Theater Find a spot beneath the trees for people-watching (or dog-admiring or architecture-gazing) in this tiered room, which links Upper Wacker Drive to the riverfront.  

Cove As a sort of urban beach, this space ushers people to the water. Human-powered watercraft can dock here, and stone-like structures provide seating near the water’s edge.

Marina A seasonal mix of outdoor restaurants (including City Winery, expected to reopen in March) dots the social hub and dining terrace, also home to large-boat parking.

Floating Wetlands (below) Platforms filled with water-tolerant native plants line walkways in the Jetty room, designed as an outdoor classroom with echoes of a natural riverbank. The gardens are tethered in place but made to rise and fall with fluctuating river levels. Hidden beneath are fish-friendly structures.

Jetty room walkways

New Views  Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, says the famed skyline changes with a water-level vantage: “You can look down the river and up, see all these buildings from an amazing location, and take time to really contemplate them.”

Chicago skyline

3 can’t-miss attractions

The reimagined riverfront is attracting new tenants. 

Apple Store A roof that looks like a giant silver MacBook crowns the tech giant’s Chicago flagship, a futuristic, transparent cube newly relocated on the north bank of the river at Michigan Avenue. Bridging street and riverfront levels, the store offers social events and classes alongside its products.  

Apple Store

Photo courtesy of Apple

Glass-Topped Cruising Beginning this summer, Odyssey Cruises will introduce a glass-enclosed, European-style vessel designed to showcase views from the river. Upscale dining and live music will round out its year-round tours. 

Architecture HQ  Also this summer, the Chicago Architecture Foundation plans to move to a Wacker Drive location overlooking the river docks where its scenic boat tours launch. Called the Chicago Architecture Center, the space will house an airy two-story gallery featuring a tall-buildings exhibit.


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