Report: Drop money in the river, watch it float back

May 9, 2013

The glitzy towers of downtown Chicago are filled with offices that boast impressive financial returns, but their biggest cash flow may be one they all share: the Chicago River.

A new report commissioned by Friends of the Chicago River and Openlands says each dollar invested in the river provides a 70 percent return. Completed, planned and proposed improvement projects, the report says, amount to 846 new permanent jobs, 52,400 construction jobs and $130.54 million every year.

“Investing in the Chicago River pays us back,” said Lenore Beyer-Clow, policy director for Openlands.

Friends of the Chicago River, which began as a project of Openlands, has championed the once neglected river since it was a “back alleyway full of sewage and trash,” in the words of the new report. Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel have both called attention to the resource, most recently when Emanuel announced a plan to expand the city’s Riverwalk by six blocks. But Margaret Frisbie, the group’s executive director, said despite recent progress most people still don’t appreciate the full benefits of investing in the river.

The report looked at four major completed or planned projects involving the river over the last 30 years: the deep tunnel stormwater project TARP; disinfection of wastewater at three area treatment plants; $500 million worth of green infrastructure investment citywide over 15 years; and $93 million in projects by the City of Chicago and Chicago Park District.

The benefits came in the form of additional business income, tax revenue and jobs, but also avoided flood damage and sewage treatment costs. Investing in the river boots property values along its shores, too.

Wolf Point and River Point are among the high-profile riverside developments in the portfolio of real estate firm Hines Interests.

“Why are we focused on real estate along the river?” asked Greg Van Schaak, senior managing director for Hines. “It’s very simple: it’s more valuable.” Van Schaak said whereas rent in most towers varies by floor, buildings along the river retain the same value from the first floor through the fiftieth.

Van Schaak added that most of the major companies — Boeing, MillerCoors, BP — who recently opened offices in Chicago did so in riverfront buildings. “I don’t think that’s an accident,” he said.

Money talks, but it’s impossible to neatly quantify many of the benefits that natural systems provide. That may make it difficult to invest strategically even when all parties agree on the overarching value of a natural resource like the Chicago River.

“There are all these ancillary benefits to green infrastructure that aren’t quantified when you only look at economic returns,” said Debra Shore, an MWRD commissioner. Environmental benefits like carbon sequestration, soil retention and fresh air are valuable too, Shore said, but don’t yet appear on the ledger of an economic analysis.