Chicago casino and the riverfront
The plan for a Chicago casino has been controversial. But river ecologists and preservationists said that the complex, which will occupy the site of the Tribune's printing plant in River West, is an opportunity to push thinking about public access to the waterway. Justine Tobiasz / WBEZ

The plan for a downtown Chicago casino now has a surprising ally: river lovers

The formerly filthy waterway is becoming a star city attraction — and developers like Bally’s are taking notice.

The plan for a Chicago casino has been controversial. But river ecologists and preservationists said that the complex, which will occupy the site of the Tribune's printing plant in River West, is an opportunity to push thinking about public access to the waterway. Justine Tobiasz / WBEZ
Chicago casino and the riverfront
The plan for a Chicago casino has been controversial. But river ecologists and preservationists said that the complex, which will occupy the site of the Tribune's printing plant in River West, is an opportunity to push thinking about public access to the waterway. Justine Tobiasz / WBEZ

The plan for a downtown Chicago casino now has a surprising ally: river lovers

The formerly filthy waterway is becoming a star city attraction — and developers like Bally’s are taking notice.

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Chicago’s push for a casino has stirred fervent debate focused mostly on the predictable: whether the right site was chosen, how much tax revenue it will generate and whether it will worsen noise, traffic or problem gambling.

But river advocates and ecological preservationists see the complex in a different light. To them, the Bally’s plan to replace the Tribune printing plant in River West can be a meaningful next step in the ongoing makeover of the city’s riverfront — if done right.

The casino plan is still unfolding, but it will join an urban landscape in mid-transformation. Roughly since the beginning of this century, the banks of the Chicago River have been growing from bit player to star attraction, an ever more alluring aspect of a city where natural beauty can be scarce.

Chicago casino renderings
A rendering of a new Chicago casino shows riverfront portions of the site transformed into a cultural destination of its own, with options for dining and a stop for water taxis. Courtesy of Bally’s

The Riverwalk downtown, of course, is the shining example. The mostly unfenced waterside pathway has become an instant icon, a place to grab a drink with friends or just stroll for blocks without traffic. It’s a stark contrast to previous decades of riverfront development, which put cold seawalls and sterile parking lots up against the waterway.

Things were so bad for so long that the city’s official design guidelines for the river begin by noting its history of being “neglected and abused.”

“The Riverwalk has shown that people aren’t going to fall in, and that we want to have that connection to the water,” said Jen Masengarb, executive director of the American Institute of Architects Chicago, noting that in earlier phases of river development, protective fences were the norm.

But now that centerpiece is mostly done, and the riverfront beautification is expanding up the North Branch and down the South. The major, multi-faceted real estate developments Lincoln Yards (on the North Side, between Lincoln Park and Bucktown) and the 78 (on the Near South Side, just south of Roosevelt Road) enfold the river into their plans, not only because the city requires it but because the people who would live and work in those places expect it.

Chicago Riverwalk
Chicago’s 1.25-mile Riverwalk was developed in three phases starting about a decade ago, and each phase showed an evolution of thinking about how to design a riverfront for public use. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

And that’s why, in between them, the new Bally’s Casino — which won the blessing of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and City Council — feels so important. More than just an opportunity for tourists to pretend they’re James Bond at the craps table, the casino is a chance to do riverfront development the right way, advocates say, with green space and easy public access, whether by canoe, Divvy or shoe leather, and a land-use plan that embraces the waterway rather than tolerates it.

Many of the details are still being sorted out in the pre-final approval dance between developers, interest groups and the city. But advocates feel enough safeguards are in place to ensure that what happens at the casino site will improve the river, too.

“I’m stating the obvious here, but the transformation of that stretch of the river between Function A, what it was, and Function B, what it will be, is going to be one of the most dramatic switches that we’ve seen in the river,” said Masengarb.

Chicago casino
The Tribune’s Freedom Center printing facility largely shrugs off the river, with the exception of what some architectural tour docents call a ‘sad’ park. Justine Tobiasz / WBEZ

Right now the big printing plant known as Freedom Center shrugs off the river with its stark brick wall. Along with the property’s massive private parking lot, it holds the “saddest park ever,” or at least that’s what she’s heard Chicago Architecture Center river tour docents call it, Masengarb said. “There’s, like, one picnic table.”

“The Freedom Center was just awful,” said Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune. “It had no connection with the river other than, I guess, receiving paper for the presses.”

So what is going in its place will be, almost by default, a big improvement. And it will be significant beyond its site, as a key part of the connective tissue linking the improved river downtown to what it will be elsewhere.

“Great public works are multi-generational projects,” Kamin said. “It’s taken generations to get where we are today so the riverfront is like a 50-year, 30-year, 20-year timeline. But the casino is a huge piece and an important one of connecting the downtown” to points north.

The city agrees. “The casino district now creates a destination,” said Maurice Cox, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development. “So for me, I feel like that’s the next thing: Let’s establish a green agenda and character of the casino district. And that will then inform the way the rest of the river should develop.”

Riverfront access a key selling point

The Chicago River Design Guidelines is the city’s bible for riverfront development, a peek into dark history surrounded by rules for a brighter future. “Renewed development and changes in technology have made it possible to reclaim the river,” it says, “as an aesthetic and recreational resource to improve the quality of life for all Chicagoans.”

Does the Bally’s plan do that? In the renderings released so far, the riverside portions of the site are transformed into a kind of Riverwalk north, with dining options along the promenade. Wide steps descend from the casino building’s clear-glass walls directly to the river edge, where water taxis can dock, and kayakers paddle around out front. A terraced park toward the south of the property brings in fountains and some green space, albeit in front of a fence at the waterside. A new pedestrian bridge connects the casino site’s open park area to an existing park across the water.

It all looks fairly friendly, a nice enough place to saunter, even if you have no intention of tugging the handle of a slot machine. But pull the focus back and you see how very long and low-slung the casino building appears to be, its mass overshadowing the pedestrian pathway and even, to some degree, the river.

Chicago casino
Renderings of the $1.7 billion Bally’s development show a casino, a 500-room hotel and a 3,000-seat theater on a 30-acre site. The plan is not yet final. Courtesy of Bally’s

“There was a lot of outrage about a casino on the lakefront,” said Margaret Frisbie, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the Chicago River. “And we said, ‘Well, the river is not any better of a place for the casino than the lake is. It’s a natural resource. It’s a human resource. It’s a community amenity.’

“However, if you look at that particular location now, it’s a seawall and a big building. So if that turns into natural habitat and public access, I see that as a win in the long term, in the bigger picture.”

At this stage in the $1.7 billion Bally’s development — targeting an opening in 2026, and including a 500-room hotel and 3,000-seat theater on the 30-acre site — a rendering can be just a sort of Pinterest board of pretty possibilities designed to win over potential critics. (In the interim few years, the city has said the casino can operate in the landmark Medinah Temple in the heart of River North, another fairly contentious choice.)

But according to the river design guidelines adopted by the city first in 1999 and continually updated since, the property is required to have a 30-foot setback from the river. A community agreement, too, between Chicago and Bally’s spells out that the property must include riverwalk and parks and a publicly accessible pathway along its eastern edge, the border with the river.

The renderings “are very true to the general flavor that we want to introduce for the riverwalk environment,” said Joyen Vakil, senior vice president of design and development for Bally’s Corporation. “Having said that, they were conceptual…. It’s fair to say that, like with every rendering, they’re going to evolve.”

Vakil, though, anticipates the essential plan for the site outlined in the renderings will remain, as will the general profile of the buildings on it. He sees the riverwalk as being “a nice, walkable riverfront with food and beverage options.”

Significantly, “at this time, we don’t have any plans for any kind of private boat docking,” he said, just a water taxi stop. So there’ll be no high-rollers pulling up to the gambling den in their cigarette boats — or their kayaks.

Chicago Riverwalk
The Riverwalk offers several options for people to interact with the river, from fishing to boat docking. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Now as the casino proposal winds its way through various approvals at the city and state level, Bally’s has started a kind of listening tour and sell job to community groups. Any pushback the casino can eliminate against the design can help make the final zoning approval go more smoothly. And the path to least resistance involves, in part, riverfront design and access.

“We’ve been listening to what they have to say,” Vakil said. “And we are trying to incorporate as much of it as possible.”

For instance, the River North Residents Association, which represents more than 90 buildings across the river from the casino site and met with Bally’s representatives in July, has pivoted from its initial opposition to the site. “We turned to trying to improve the project in a variety of ways that would lessen negative impacts” and ensure that provisions for riverfront access and green space will be upheld, said Brian Israel, association president.

One aspect of the plan includes an outdoor concert venue amid the park space at the south of the property. But the association told Bally’s the group is not keen on the idea of concert noise and traffic.

That venue plan remains under development, said the Bally’s executive. “We are sensitive to what community groups have mentioned about nuisance” and are working to help make it “well-received among community members,” Vakil said.

The group also critiqued the planned pedestrian bridge, connecting the bustling casino site to what is now a quiet River North park.

And Vakil, in the interview with WBEZ, said, “Based on community input, we decided that the bridge was not a good idea. So we’ve eliminated that from the project.”

Bally’s met, too, with Frisbie’s river advocacy group and has meetings scheduled in the coming weeks with public-private advisory panels, the city’s River Ecology and Governance Task Force and its Committee on Design. ”We had a really good, open-ended conversation with them,” said Frisbie.“We talked about the design solutions we’d like to see: cutting down sea walls to minimum heights and slopes so that you can really get down to the water — and have a natural edge actually near the water as much as possible,” she recalled.

Chicago casino
Bally’s has been meeting with residents groups about its plans for the casino complex. Courtesy of Bally’s

Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development will have a big say in the final plan, as well. As with the Lincoln Yards and 78 developments, the city is forming a casino community advisory council to keep people who are especially interested engaged ahead of and through the construction process and beyond.

“We’ve been really clear about the need both to program the (river) edge and to have a healthy setback,” said Cox, who heads the planning department, “but that we also wanted a kind of more naturalized edge. And so far, that is the vision that is emerging.”

A more final plan is expected soon, said a planning department spokesperson, and its compliance with river design guidelines will be assessed. That plan, which will be part of Bally’s zoning application, will have to pass muster with the Chicago Plan Commission, the City Council zoning committee and ultimately the full council before shovels enter the ground.

Even before that, the Bally’s plan needs license approval from the Illinois Gaming Board, an application it filed in August.

Slow to catch on to the vision of a ‘second lakefront’

The conversation happening now would have been unthinkable even a few decades ago. In early Chicago, the river was a place to dump human and industrial waste and a means of conveyance comparable to rail lines. The 1900 reversal of the river, sending the sewage toward St. Louis, was one step in its evolution.

But well into the 20th century, riverfront developers still seemed mostly uninterested in the river as a thing of potential beauty. Take the Freedom Center, opened in the early 1980s and still an example of an industrial-age waterfront.

“It was strictly for commerce, and there was no connection between the land and the water,” said the architecture critic Kamin.

“This is the second lakefront,” said Kathleen Dickhaut, deputy commissioner for systems and the river in the city planning department. “Chicago has done an excellent job of preserving the lakefront for public access. And the river was developed differently. That’s where all the industry went, because it was the first highway.”

Chicago Riverwalk
A river once filled with human and industrial waste has undergone a transformation, especially in recent years. Now on a warm day it is full of tour boats and kayakers. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

A turning point was the 1972 passage of the landmark federal Clean Water Act. Friends of the Chicago River was founded seven years later and has worked ever since with the city to make the once-polluted river less grimey, even swimmable. Along the way, the advocacy group has pushed the post-industrial vision for the Chicago River that calls for public use.

Ald. Brian Hopkins was a critic of Bally’s plan for the Freedom Center site, preferring the rival plan proposed for the South Branch, amid the 78 development. Now, he is part of the chorus calling for key improvements in the winning plan.

“They put a lot more thought into how their casino at the 78 site would activate the riverfront,” he said. “Despite the fact that the Balley’s site is also on the river, they just gave it a cursory glance, and really didn’t put a lot of emphasis on what they could do there.”

Commissioner Cox disagreed, saying the Bally’s proposal was “the most inspired in many ways” of all the contenders, including that it meets city criteria to “actually address the river.”

Vakil, of Bally’s, bristled at the suggestion the river was an afterthought in the plan. Bally’s executives and project designers spent a whole day in a bus, he said, touring a handful of existing Chicago riverfront sites for inspiration. The river “has certainly not been an afterthought,” he said. “It is an integral part of the design of the project.”

Margaret Frisbie
Margaret Frisbie of the advocacy group Friends of the Chicago River, pictured at a podium, spoke with the waterway as a backdrop at the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. Photo by Patrick Thomas/Courtesy of Metropolitan Water Reclamation District

That sort of thinking is still evolving in Chicago. Even the first phase of the downtown Riverwalk, the portion that runs from Michigan Avenue east toward the lake, was “pretty far above the water,” noted Frisbie, a distance that was removed for the second and third phases. Now people stroll past floating gardens, have a drink on riverfront steps near docking boats and sit in Adirondack chairs for concerts.

Just south of the Loop, the recent Southbank development goes even further. Yes, there is a riverwalk out front of its two apartment towers, part of a South Side path planned to extend to Chinatown. But the river edge, with native plantings that support biodiversity, is what really caught the eye of Frisbie.

“This is the evolution,” she said. “And I think, going north, that the casino site can be that face of a green, healthy, natural river in an urban area” — a lovely, lively riverfront first and then, yes, slot machines.

Steve Johnson is a freelance writer based in Chicago.