Last of Riverwalk rooms open

Chicagoans enjoy The Jetty, one of three Riverwalk rooms that opened to the public on Saturday. Located between Wells and Franklin Streets, The Jetty will offer fishing and interactive learning for children about the ecology of the Chicago River. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

While city and civic leaders talked about the Chicago Riverwalk being a destination for visitors around the world, and how the Riverwalk will improve the quality of life for fish in the Chicago River, former United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood arguably summed it up best.

“It’s amazing what $96 million of your hard-earned taxpayer money will do, right?”

LaHood, from Peoria, Illinois, helped obtain the $98.66 million loan from the Transportation Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act that has paid for the bulk of the Riverwalk. Another $10 million came from the State of Illinois, according to Chicago Department of Transportation. No money has come from the city, according to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

On Saturday, LaHood (left) was on the Riverwalk west of Franklin Street to help Emanuel officially open the last three sections…

Water Plaza, with its fountains designed to attract children and families. The Jetty, with its piers and floating gardens. And the undeveloped Riverbank, formerly known as Boardwalk, that a yet-unnamed master operator of the Riverwalk will bring to life. Eventually, the area will be accessible from Wacker Drive and Lake Street.

All three sections are west of LaSalle Street, extending the Riverwalk to 1.25 miles from the lakefront almost to Lake Street. There are no Riverwalk concessions operating in the new sections yet and none have been announced.

Emanuel says the goal is the make the Chicago River the city’s “next recreational park.”

“Our lakefront is our front yard but the river [is] the spine of the city,” said Emanuel. “And it connects neighborhoods and communities of the City of Chicago and our whole goal now is the make the river…integral to what we want to do for our city, and become in short time a destination point – not only for all parts of the city, but the suburbs, the rest of the state, surrounding states, and surrounding countries around the world.”

(Right) Emanuel with Riverwalk builders. Two Chicago-based companies constructed the Riverwalk, Alfred Benesch & Company, a consulting engineering firm, and Walsh Construction.

Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, says the Riverwalk is “already an incredible success.” She says visits to their Bridgehouse Museum near Michigan Avenue have increased 23 percent since the Riverwalk opened west of State Street.

Underwater plants along The Jetty, based on the “fish hotel” her organization operated ten years ago, will provide, says Frisbie, a critical habitat for an increasing number of species of fish.

“Even though we’re in downtown Chicago, we can still celebrate this natural resource and have habitat,” said Frisbie (left). “What they have done in The Jetty is actually taken this germ of an idea and really turned it into probably what you would call a fish resort.”“It’s a River Airbnb,” quipped Emanuel.

(Above) Water Plaza, located between LaSalle and Wells Streets.(Right) The Riverbank, which features a public lawn at the intersection of the river’s north, south, and main branches.

Like the three blocks before it, these last three sections were designed by Ross Barney Architects of Chicago and Sasaki Associates, Inc., with offices in Boston and Shanghai.

The new sections opened to the public at around 10:30 a.m. At 1:24 p.m., shortly after the mayor spoke, the winding ramp down to the Riverwalk from Wacker Drive was closed to pedestrians.