The new Chicago River

Who stands to profit from riverfront development is making waves across the city.

  • Photo Nicole Radja

    A proposed development on Wolf Point, a 4-acre land parcel in front of the Sun-Times building, is worrisome for local condo residents who would lose their views.

  • Photograph: Josh Pabst

    Rendering of a luxury apartment building at 111 West Wacker Drive, to be completed in 2014

  • Photograph: courtesy of the Chicago Park District

    Rendering for a proposed boathouse at Chinatown's Ping Tom Park

Photo Nicole Radja

A proposed development on Wolf Point, a 4-acre land parcel in front of the Sun-Times building, is worrisome for local condo residents who would lose their views.

William B. Ogden, elected the first mayor of Chicago in 1837, understood the potential of improving the Chicago River. Ogden led a public crusade to acquire property where the river meets Lake Michigan. He tore down the whorehouses, gambling dens and shanties, and took possession of the land by eminent domain. He lobbied to dig the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which enabled ships to travel from the Chicago River to the Mississippi River. He hired crews to dig a straight channel around a crook in the Chicago River’s North Branch, creating a speedy shortcut for shipping traffic. (When the new canal and the bow in the river were connected 1½ miles to the north, it created Goose Island.)

While lauded for his public service, Ogden also harbored private interests. In each instance, he owned land where the river upgrades were made. The improvements also aided his various business investments, which included lumber, brick making, railroads and brewing beer.

No one is accusing Mayor Rahm Emanuel of the chicanery of his predecessor. But Emanuel knows that his campaign to improve the environmental and recreational quality of the Chicago River is good business.

“Lake Michigan is part of our front yard, and the Chicago River is part of our backyard,” Emanuel said in a written statement to Time Out Chicago. “Improving our waterways will further the economic development of our city, as well as maintain the quality of an important asset to our city.” The mayor’s enhancement plans call for more restaurants, riverwalks, public parks and boathouses along the Chicago River, while continuing to push federal and local agencies to improve the water quality.

Brunches, boats and water that’s a normal shade of blue. Who could argue with that?

But at the same time, the city is throwing its weight behind several new real estate projects on the river, the first significant developments since the recession took its grip in 2008. And that’s where the complaints start:

Wealthy downtown condo owners are concerned that new river developments will increase traffic congestion and block their views.

Affordable-housing advocates are worried that a renovation of a riverside public housing project on the North Side will displace low-income residents; back downtown, they’re troubled that city tax increment financing funds are going to deep-pocketed developers.

Recreationalists who stroll the riverwalks, or float on their kayaks and sailboats, worry that towering new developments will limit public access to the water.

And environmentalists, pointing to the green muck still floating on parts of the river, say efforts to clean up the water are moving too slowly. They complain that water treatment plants still dump partially treated sewage into the river, and sewer water flows into the river after each heavy rain. An EPA mandate, issued in May 2011, that the river’s water be made clean enough for people to swim in may not be achieved until at least 2029, when Deep Tunnel, a $4 billion reservoir project designed to eliminate sewage from flowing into the river, is completed.

“When you read the mayor’s plan, all these constituencies happily coexist. The reality is, they don’t always agree,” says Sharon Haar, a professor for the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

How the conflict plays out will depend largely on Emanuel’s ability to balance these interests. If he can keep them working together, the mayor has a better chance of building on Ogden’s legacy, using the river to wave in new businesses and new jobs to Chicago.

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