To say that development along the Chicago River is booming would be an understatement. With towers rising on nearly every open piece of bank in the downtown, it was no surprise when the city gave final approval to fill one of the city’s largest gaps. Plans include five residential towers, a series of townhouses, public park space, over 3,600 residential units, a river walk, and 16,000-square-feet of street-level retail, Perkins+Will’s Riverline project is one of the largest developments the city has seen in decades. Located on the empty 13 acres to the north and south surrounding Bertrand Goldberg’s River City apartment building, the project promises to completely change the urban dynamic of the South Loop.
Once imagined by Goldberg as a complex of snaking Brutalist buildings and landscapes, the land south of Harrison Street along the river in the South Loop has lay fallow since the 1970s. After changing hands multiple times, with plans ranging from big box retail to super tall skyscrapers, the city has finally given the go-ahead to the superblock scheme set forward by Chicago developer CMK Companies and Australia’s Lend Lease Group. Led by Perkins+Will’s Design Director Ralph Johnson, the project will be phased out over ten years starting in the beginning of 2016.
The first phase of the project will include a series of townhouses on the southern plot of land and a 19-story rental tower and a 29-story condo tower to the north, all gathered around the existing River City. “The intent of the design is to make it as flexible as possible, depending on the market.” Ralph Johnson told AN. “One of the big drivers from CMK and Lend Lease was just variety of unit types.” With towers ranging from 380 feet to 600 feet tall, the finished project will include a diverse scale of buildings and spaces, indoor and out. The public landscape design by Chicago’s Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects and initial road improvement will also be finished in the first phase. Conceived to be a more naturalistic recreational area near the river, and a more geometric retail space on the street-side of the site, the landscape will include storm water management, a kayak launch, a water taxi stop, an outdoor amphitheater, and multiple soft and hardscape gathering areas.
The implications of such a large project, in what has until now been a quiet part of the city, are not trivial. Currently Wells Street, which would be the project’s main access point, is a small two-lane dead end. Roosevelt Street, to the south of the site, is an elevated viaduct, making it only accessible via stairs and eventually an elevator from the site. And though the South Loop has seen a great deal of development in the last 15 years, it still does not have all of the amenities that will be required for thousands of new residents. None of this is to mention that there is already a major architecturally significant building in the middle of the project. Perkins+Will, who designed the hospital that will replace Goldberg’s now-demolished Prentice Women’s Hospital, is working to carefully integrate River City into the overall project. “There is currently a path under the building that we would be improving.” Perkins+Will Principal Todd Snapp said. “We are looking at a number of different ways to connect through the building, either under the building or along the waterfront.”
Though it has been some time, Chicago is no stranger to epic urban projects. From campus designs to clusters of residential towers, when a project reaches a certain point it begins to exceed architectural concerns and starts engaging with urban planning. Having done the master planning for Riverline, as well as the architecture of the proposed buildings, Perkins+Will was able to work with developers to design a more integrated neighborhood. “It wasn’t about just using every square foot of land to put units. How can you create a nice balance?” Johnson said. Snapp added, “It wasn’t about maximizing density, it was about maximizing quality of the space.”