New backyard to anchor Chicago

By Gregory Cappis

Mayor Emanuel announced plans to make the Chicago River the city’s new backyard pool, but cannonballs are not recommended.

Emanuel proposed a $16 million plan on Sept. 19 to build four boathouses along the river’s edge. He plans to make the river a recreational nucleus for neighborhoods along the waterway instead of just a hub for commerce.

Half of the money needed to build the boathouses will be investments from private parties, and the other half will come from the city and park district.

“There’s no doubt that the river has been the lifeblood to moving cargo and ship, but it has a great potential for economic development and quality of life in our neighborhoods and for our residents of our neighborhoods,” Emanuel said at a press conference on the river’s edge at Ping Tom Memorial Park, 300 W. 19th St., one of the sites for the new boathouses.

The other three boathouses will be built at River Park, 5100 N. Francisco Ave.; Clark Park, 3400 N. Rockwell Ave.; and on Eleanor Street between Loomis and Fuller streets.

The boathouses will feature concessions and kayak and canoe rentals, according to Emanuel. The Chicago Department of Transportation will expand walking and bicycle trails lining the river, he added.

All of the four proposed boathouses are along a stretch of the river needing upgraded standards, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Last May [2011], EPA notified the state that the waters here must be cleaner, and we did that to make the Chicago and Calumet rivers safer and healthier,” said EPA Director Lisa Jackson as Emanuel waved to a water taxi passing by.

Although the city did adopt the higher water standards, the river’s quality is still not safe for full body contact, such as swimming or diving, according to the EPA’s website.

Jackson complimented the city for their efforts to clean the polluted river.

Emanuel believes that by making the river part of the community, people will be more committed to cleaning it up and improving its quality.

The EPA is working with Chicago to improve the management of storm water, the river’s main pollutant, by installing green infrastructure.

“Green infrastructure is actually the opposite of concrete and pipes,” Jackson said. “It’s lifting up concrete to allow water to absorb back into the ground and not run off into the river and carry its pollution with it.”

The EPA is also awarding $300,000 in grants to train Chicagoans to build the aforementioned green infrastructure. Students and people underemployed will be the targets for this training.

Alderman Richard Mell (33rd Ward) is a strong supporter of the boathouse plan. He said the river has become 100 times cleaner in the 36 years he has served as an alderman to where people are now fishing in the river.

“You now have to have a giant storm before any of that water goes into that river,” Mell said. “It goes right down into a deep tunnel. With these boathouses and the water reclamation district, the water is going to get cleaned up.”

Alderman George Cardenas (12th Ward) said he is working hard in his ward to clean up the riverbanks. He is beautifying them by adding vegetation and linking them to the banks in other districts.

The boathouses will be designed by renowned Chicago architects Chris Lee and Jeanne Gang, who will be working with students from the Illinois Institute of Technology and members of the community. Gang was one of 22 recipients of the $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship Grant, awarded on Sept. 20.

When the boathouses are finished, Emanuel said he sees them as a core to the surrounding communities. They will play the same role that the city’s front yard, the lakefront, does to other parts of the city.

He thinks it will bring communities and neighborhoods together, and be a focal point of recreation

“You put a boathouse here where people can rent kayaks, canoes, concession and a picnic area, and you have a totally different economic strategy for the South Loop, Bridgeport, Pilsen and Chinatown,” Emanuel said. “It begins to anchor communities and give them the economic energy that other parts of the city have experienced.”