A balmy spring night provided the perfect backdrop for Bob Foster, senior project manager with the Chicago Park District, to unveil the latest plans for the new River Park boathouse. The idea of paddling along the Chicago River seemed mighty appealing, if potentially toxic.
Presenting the kind of schematics that only make sense to architects, Foster attempted to paint a picture for the dozen or so residents in attendance.
Use your imagination here: The two-story boathouse, one of four announced in 2011 by Mayor Emanuel, will be located on the west bank of the river, near Argyle Street, adjacent to an existing soccer field and playground. While the city is just beginning the bidding process, the expectation is that a canoe/kayak rental vendor will occupy the boathouse, though the boat launch will be open for use to all members of the public. (A larger boathouse planned for Clark Park, 3400 N. Rockwell Ave., just a few miles downstream, will accommodate the longer boats used by rowing clubs.) Bicycle and fishing equipment rentals may be provided in the future but “right now, the priority is to get people to use the river,” Foster said.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature revealed by Foster is a rooftop deck, roomy enough to accommodate roughly 60 people, that will be open to all residents, whether renting a boat or not. Though the deck will be strictly BYOC (bring your own chair), it’s easy to envision this becoming a popular picnic spot or vantage point for viewing soccer matches. The Park District currently has no plans to require a permit or charge a fee to use the space, but we imagine there was a time when Wrigley’s rooftop decks were free, too.
One amenity visitors won’t find at the boathouse: bathrooms. Those will be located at an existing Park District facility situated some hundred yards from the proposed boathouse site. For anyone who’s chanced upon this building in the past, one word will spring to mind: gross. Foster headed off objections by stating that the restrooms would be completely rehabbed (and one assumes thoroughly sanitized), including the addition of an outdoor shower, and would only be available during the boathouse’s hours of operation to minimize vandalism and other abuses.
With all of the hype surrounding the announcement of star architect Jeanne Gang’s role in the design of the boathouses, it was a bit of a letdown to learn that her involvement is confined to the structures at Clark Park and Bubbly Creek–nothing against Johnson & Lee, whose plans for River Park appear perfectly serviceable. Clark Park will also have a nifty rowing flume for practice during the winter, so good for them.
Even with a number of elements still in flux, including the length of the boathouse dock, Foster expects the Park District will break ground at the site this summer. “The existing conditions are pretty bad there,” he said, so much of the initial effort, coordinated with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, will be aimed at upgrading the shoreline. The nearby soccer field, track, playground, fishing pier and existing boat launch will remain open during construction.
When completed in spring/summer of 2013, the boathouse will boast Silver LEED certification and will be ADA accessible. In the event of one of those “500-year” floods that seem to occur annually, the structure will be pitched toward the river for easy drainage. Though dependent on the eventual chosen vendor, the Park District hopes to have the boathouse open seven days a week.
Members of the ad hoc Chicago River Boathouse Advisory Committee, led by rowing coach and self-professed “squeaky wheel” Mark Carroll, were pleased overall with the boathouse design, but expressed lingering concerns.
“I would have liked to see more in terms of the actual vending, in terms of who gets the contract, if there will be transparency,” said Colin Clinard. Noting that there have been monthly public meetings held regarding the three-mile-long Bloomingdale Trail, he added, “I would like to see as much on the River.”
And what about the Chicago River? Steve McNulty, who coaches young rowers, said, “If you fall in the river, for kids, in the next hour, you want to get them in the shower.” One of the indicators the rowers plan to keep an eye on is sewage parts per million, much in the way Lake Michigan is monitored for bacteria.
Still, for rowers and other river advocates, the boathouses represent a huge opportunity to promote their sport and water activity in Chicago’s back yard. Said Clinard: “There are a lot of very eager people that want to get out there.”