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In the South Loop, new riverfront park debuts amphitheater made of reclaimed limestone

Southbank Park reuses the old foundations of Chicago’s demolished Grand Central Station

Photos by Jay Koziarz

Though once little more than a dumping ground for the city’s early industrial boom, the Chicago River has evolved into a new frontier for both recreation and real estate development. The most recent example embodying the shift is the newly opened Southbank Park—a publicly accessible but privately owned waterfront green space just south of the Loop.

Joining the 452-unit Cooper rental building, the 2.5-acre park and riverwalk designed by Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects is the latest addition to the seven-acre multi-phase South Bank development. The site features trees, shrubs, and grasses selected for their beauty, resilience, and low maintenance requirements.

An urban prairie with tall grass, medium bushes, and small trees. There’s a circular path lined with limestone blocks. The art deco Old Post Office building is visible beyond.
The Old Post Office looms over the opposite bank of the Chicago River.

“Prairie grasses cover many areas that will ultimately have buildings on them,” explained Thomas Weeks of LendLease. “We didn’t want to put in a lot of heavy landscaping that we’d have to tear out. The grass is consistent with the overall park and provides a natural habitat for birds, insects, and other wildlife.”

A more permanent centerpiece of the park is a circular path and riverfront amphitheater lined with reclaimed limestone blocks that once formed the foundation of Chicago’s former Grand Central Station. The now-demolished train terminal occupied the South Loop site from 1890 to 1971.

“We’re reusing material that is historically significant and doing so in a sustainable way,” said Paul Turilli of LendLease. “[The foundation] would usually be something that a contractor doesn’t want to find when excavating a site, but we identified a good purpose for it.”

Stepped blocks on limestone are arranged in a semicircle. Bush and trees are visible on the side and high-rise building beyond.
The stepped blocks invite visitors to sit, read, sunbathe, or look out at the river. The upcoming Alta Grand Central apartments can be seen in the background.

The reclaimed stones also cap the south end of a new riverwalk. The path will eventually push past the River City Apartments and connect to a similar riverwalk at CMK’s Riverline development and the massive Related Midwest project known as The 78. When completed, the walkway will stretch roughly one mile from Harrison Street to Chinatown’s Ping Tom Park.

The waterfront walkway and amphitheater overlook a naturally landscaped riverbank which provides new habitats for wildlife and improved stormwater management. It is joined by new lighting elements, seating areas, and a colorful mural on the blank wall beneath Harrison Street from artist and Pilsen native Ruben Aguirre.

Thoughtful design isn’t just limited to the park’s human inhabitants. Scattered throughout the riverbank is a diverse collection of geometric, species-specific birdhouses created by third-year UIC design students in collaboration with landscape architect Ted Wolff.

A stone pathway lined with leafy green plants, purple flowers, and wood benches. A river and skyscrapers are visible in the distance.
The curving riverwalk portion of the park features lush plantings, lighting, and benches.
An elevated pathway gently slopes down to the river and curves to the left. A man and a woman sit on a wood bench facing the water next to a furry dog.
There are many spaces to stop and enjoy the riverfront.
An abstract painting of red, blue, black, pink, and green cover the side of a road embankment. There’s scaffolding in front.
The upcoming mural by Ruben Aguirre.
A rectangular birdhouse made of rust colored metal with a circular opening and two vertical fins sits atop a post. It’s surrounded by grass, bushes, and purple flowers.
One of birdhouses created in partnership with UIC design students.

In addition to extending the path south, LendLease also has plans to build a kayak launch at Southbank Park as well as a new Water Taxi stop once future phases of the development are completed. The next piece of the puzzle, a residential high-rise known as “Building E,” is slated for the parcel southwest of The Cooper.

Meanwhile, work continues on the nearby 14-story Alta Grand Central project at the corner of Wells and Harrison. Although technically not part of the Southbank development, the adjacent apartment complex benefits from the park and its bucolic river frontage.

Though privately owned and maintained, the newly completed Southbank Park is open to the public. The space operates daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., similar to Chicago Park District hours.

A high-level view of a natural prairie and a traditional lawn surrounded by a oval-shaped pathway. Two tour boats cross paths in the river beyond.
An overview of the park from The Cooper’s sixth-floor amenity terrace. “Building E” is slated for the left-hand portion of the shot.