Outside theMART, the Chicago Riverwalk Is a Welcome Place of Urban Respite

The varied outdoor spaces of the Chicago Riverwalk include an area that incorporates the city’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial where the river bends between Wabash Avenue and State Street.

Over the last 15 years, Chicago-based Ross Barney Architects, led by Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, has transformed a sequence of nine blocks along the Chicago River into a public amenity. The Chicago Riverwalk is now complete for residents and visitors alike to enjoy, right outside of theMART.

The idea of a publicly accessible walkway along the Chicago River’s south bank was notionally addressed in Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. “Wacker Drive was one of the few physical things built from the plan,” Ross Barney says. But pedestrian riverfront access was nonexistent along the double-deck roadway.

The stairs of the river theater between Clark Street and LaSalle Drive. 

By 2001, though, the city was beginning to consider its riverfront as a potential amenity— albeit one that presented unique constraints. Wacker Drive’s stone-clad arcades 22 feet below ground level are narrow, and, even worse, “the bridge houses separated portions [of the riverfront],” Ross Barney explains.

New under-bridge pedestrian connections, which required an act of Congress to construct within the river’s navigable area, allow for a continuous walkway around the bridge houses. Canted metal canopies, which reflect light and the water, protect the walkway when the bascule bridges are raised.

Along the Riverwalk, each block unfolds as a discrete “room” with a different theme. Westward from Michigan Avenue, the first two blocks are along a river bend that allows for much of this stretch to be the most traditionally parklike with greenery. Chicago’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial and a wide staircase are among the elements here.

The cove between Dearborn and Clark Streets.

The cove between Dearborn and Clark Streets.

On adjacent blocks west of State Street are the marina and cove, which provide places for boaters and kayakers to land and launch. The original open Beaux-Arts arcades now accommodate glass-enclosed interiors for food and beverage purveyors, such as City Winery at the Chicago Riverwalk.

The most dramatic block is the river theater between Clark Street and LaSalle Drive. Here, a block-long bleacher-like staircase is interspersed with ramps that connect Upper Wacker Drive to the river’s edge. “We wanted to bend the city down to the river,” Ross Barney explains.

The westernmost blocks—completed this past winter—include the water plaza, the jetty, and the riverbank that terminates the Riverwalk at the confluence of the river’s north and south branches near theMART. These outdoor spaces emphasize the tactile nature of water and the sustainability of life within its banks.