Redeveloping Wacker Drive, and Chicago’s riverfront

January 7, 2011

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(Flickr/Dan Perry)
The Chicago Riverwalk just east of the Michigan Avenue bridge.
(Flickr/Wally Gobetz)
The Chicago River photographed from the Dearborn Street bridge in 1962. Wacker Drive runs adjacent to the river.

Traffic has been snarled in the Loop this week thanks to the second phase of Revive Wacker Drive, a major reconstruction of the famous double-decker street. This three year, $366 million endeavor will shore up the stability of the north-south portion of the roadway and will rebuild the Congress Parkway interchange that leads to I-90/94 and I-290.

The first phase of Wacker’s redevelopment started in 1999 with improvements to the east-west portion of the street. And although it was not the project’s primary goal, a second set of redevelopment opportunities arose along the Chicago River. Wacker Drive is just one part of the complex built environment along the river, and Mayor Daley encouraged the project managers to reclaim some of the area in front of the river for public use. You can see the results in the form of the Chicago Riverwalk, which runs along the east-west portion of Wacker near the Michigan Ave. bridge.
 
The Riverwalk was the first part of a patchwork of plans past and future to improve public access to the downtown portion of the Chicago River. The city’s vision for the riverfront was laid out in a 2009 plan developed by Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and includes wide pathways for walking and biking, a new market district, and theater space. If completed, the project would transform the face of Chicago’s downtown. (You can see the entire Skidmore, Owings & Merrill proposal in the extras section below.)
 
One key player in drafting plans for future improvements to the riverfront was Michelle Woods. Woods describes herself as a “bridge builder,” and in this case her meaning is literal. She is a bridge engineer for the Chicago Department of Transportation and was so heavily involved with the development of the under-bridge connections at Michigan and Wabash Avenues in 2009 that she joked they should rename the bridge “Michelligan Ave.”
 
In the audio excerpt posted above, Woods explains what it took to transform the riverfront area along East and West Wacker. (Among other things it took creating new land in the middle of the river and securing an act of Congress.) It’s a good reminder of how much work would be involved in developing the north-south portion of the river along Wacker, too. But if you’ve been stuck in traffic this week you probably already knew that.
 
Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Michelle Woods spoke to an audience at the Chicago Architecture Foundation in May of 2010. Click here to hear her talk in its entirety, and click here to subscribe to the Dynamic Range podcast.