Reflecting on the river
Waterline exhibit offers visions for the future of Chicago River's South Branch
07/18/2012 10:00 PM
The Chicago River Museum is hidden in plain sight. The towers that mark the corners of the DuSable Bridge are hard to miss. But few people realize that the southwestern tower contains the only museum dedicated to the Chicago River. And while the entrance is clearly labeled, it is located at the bottom of the Riverwalk, which makes it easy to miss.
But anyone who does manage to find it would discover that the museum is currently hosting the Waterline exhibit — a collection of proposals for improvements of the area around the Chicago River’s South branch. Organized by Chicago-based Skidmore Owings & Merrill and the Friends of the Chicago River (the museum’s parent organization), the exhibit is a culmination a semester-long project by a group of Harvard University architecture and urban planning graduate students.
Under the instruction of Philip J. Enquist, an Urban Design Partner at SOM, the students studied the stretch of Chicago River between Wolf Point and the western end of Pilsen. Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, worked with the students at Harvard and in Chicago to help them understand the river from the local perspective.
The final proposals varied a great deal in terms of location, scope and scale, but they addressed similar issues: The declining job market, river pollution and the lack of connections between the river and the neighborhoods that surrounded it.
“River Neighborhoods” by Catherine Tang envisions a system of green spaces, boat docks, canals and bridge-like walkways on both sides of the river between Roosevelt Road and 18th Street. It also calls for residential developments in vacant land on the South Loop side and the new street extensions to link the new communities to the river.
“Slip District: Generating the Water Community in Pilsen” by Nina Chase proposes a radical transformation of the neighborhood’s riverside industrial corridor. One of the most complex proposals presented at an exhibit, it envisions an industrial district based entirely around water. The water filtration slips would help clean up the river and relieve the city storm treatment facilities. The soon-to-be-shuttered Fisk power plant would become home to the Water Institute, which would spur development of the new “water industries” around it.
“The ‘water industries’ would consist of a combination of policy based organizations and applied manufacturing industries,” she said.
The policy-based organizations would focus on political aspects of water management and filtration, while the manufacturers would create water filtration and filtration mechanisms, as well as storm water management products.
Chase believes that the proposed water district would be a great resource for Pilsen residents.
“The Water Institute would provide the community with a educational source,” said Chase. “[It] would also house indoor and outdoor classrooms, lab space, and presentation/lecture halls. Increased open space would offer the opportunity for cultural events along the River.”
Ultimately, the Waterline exhibit is, first and foremost, a showcase of ideas. Ozana Balan King, the River Museum director and program manager, described the Chicago River as an important part of the city that sometimes gets taken for granted. The exhibit was meant to inspire Chicagoans to imagine what the river could become.
“We want people to realize the potential to improve the river along the banks — the potential to make the river even more vibrant,” said King. “We want people to dream with us, to dream about the possibilities. We really want people to imagine what we can do along the river.”