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Mayor drops $10M into Riverwalk upgrades

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What’s planned? New landscaping, seating areas and a glass elevator for the eastern stretch

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In two years, and with $10 million, the mayor plans to overhaul a section of the Chicago Riverwalk that hasn’t gotten much love.

Early Friday the Chicago Tribune reported the city’s plans to invest more into the Riverwalk from State Street to Lakeshore Drive. Some parts of this stretch feel like an afterthought compared to the western portion, which is packed with people strolling riverside or stopping in at places like City Winery.

In an interview with the newspaper, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said, “The Riverwalk has kind of almost a split personality. There’s a before, and there’s an after.”

Riverwalk East, as the mayor called it in the Tribune article, isn’t in dire need of a rescue. Lots of people still walk, run and bike that portion of the Riverwalk which connects around to the Lakefront Trail. Some of what’s already there includes the Vietnam Memorial, O’Brien’s Riverwalk Cafe, Chicago Brewhouse, McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum, docks for Chicago’s First Lady Cruises, Island Party Hut, and an outpost for Urban Kayaks.

The plan mostly includes landscaping, seating areas, art installations, and other light improvements. There are trees and a few grassy areas now, but it’s not exactly curated or polished.

The improvements also include a possible event space near Columbus Drive where a city impound lot sits, large mural screens to hide parts of Wacker Drive, ramps down from Lower Wacker Drive, a glass elevator from Upper Wacker Drive down to the walkway, a connecting pathway for Lakeshore East residents, and several spaces for restaurants, the Tribune reported. Two gateways on either side of Michigan Avenue would encourage visitors to venture down to the water.

The city also plans to install a monument honoring submarines that were made for World War II and traveled from Lake Michigan, through the Chicago River and Mississippi River and finally out to the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Tribune.

Parts of the eastern Riverwalk are about 12 to 15 feet above the water, which is much higher than the newest portion of the path, according to the Tribune. But there aren’t any plans now to construct something closer to the water’s edge.

Many of the retailers on the eastern section, such as Urban Kayaks, Island Party Hut, and the not-yet-open Northman Beer & Cider Garden, are looking forward to the improvements. Along with the leases, the retailers are required to pay for upgrades to their sections of the Riverwalk, according to the Tribune. Urban Kayaks just signed a 10-year lease which will allow the business to make serious changes. The kayak rental company said it will build a cantina to serve up tacos and margaritas.

The city’s $10 million in funding and deals with four businesses to drop in money will just cover what’s planned, according to Tribune reporting. A private group is working on raising money for the statue recognizing the World War II submarines.

Recently, the New York Times published a photo essay on the river’s transformation from trash to treasure. In that story architect Carol Ross Barney told the Times, “A while ago, if you would have said you were going to go sit down by the river, people would have thought you were crazy.”