With a combined length of 156 miles, the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) weaves its way through a unique array of neighborhoods and landscapes, serving multiple functions that benefit the Chicago region.
It constitutes a final frontier for the imaginations of the City’s leading architects, designers and developers. It attracts kayakers and pontooners alike. It sustains tour and tug boat operations, industrialists and restaurants. While the purpose of the river has evolved to meet developing needs, it has yet to really reach its full potential.
“Much like Lake Michigan is Chicago’s front yard, the Chicago River is our backyard, and should be an asset that people across the City enjoy, not avoid,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel has previously said in a statement, adding that his administration is working tirelessly to reclaim the river from a history of environmental abuse.
Some of his efforts are demonstrated by his support of “Our Great Rivers,” the city’s first unified vision for the Chicago, Calumet and Des Plaines rivers, unveiled in 2016. Created in partnership with the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), City of Chicago, Friends of the Chicago River and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), the forward-looking agenda calls for the three rivers to be more productive, living and inviting by 2040.
Each of the 26 goals outlined in Our Great Rivers includes recommended actions that can occur by 2020, 2030 and 2040, setting clear benchmarks toward achievement. Examples of those actions include productive use and reuse of water, revitalized and reimagined infrastructure, and ecologically sensitive shoreline development.
And development is booming, with multiple projects recently completed, some underway, and several more slated to break ground.
“In Chicago, along the riverfront, Epstein is the leader. No other firm has completed civil engineering for as many private development riverfront projects as we have,” said Dave Hilty, our Project Manager of Civil Engineering.
In fact, Epstein provided civil engineering design services for:
In order to not be part of the problem and, rather, be part of the long-term solution, Epstein’s services stayed in tune with the environmental and sustainable direction of the City.
“It’s a desire of the City for the developer to follow along in their efforts to improve the Chicago Area Waterway System and to make efforts to clean the water,” Dave said. “Every one of Epstein’s solutions is unique; every one required a different civil engineering solution that also helped the environment along the river.”
At 300 N. LaSalle, for instance, Epstein obtained the permit approval for a cooling water intake structure for the building’s cooling system that reuses river water. The structure reduces the building’s dependency on the public water supply and the amount of stormwater being discharged into the river.
Prior to the commencement of this project, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had just issued their 316(b) Rule for cooling water intake structures, which established stringent requirements for the protection of fish and other aquatic organisms.
“We were the first ones on the Chicago Waterway System to obtain a permit under this new ruling,” Dave said. “From organism entrainment and impingement reduction, to limitations on intake velocity and capacity, and evaluation of thermal impacts -- it was a very rigorous process."
Rather than providing underground stormwater detention, Epstein routed the stormwater from the building – through the cooling system – to be reused for the cooling water. “It was a great idea and we were able to get all the necessary approvals to make it work.”
And the City of Chicago loved it. Epstein eliminated the stormwater discharge from the site and reduced the amount of water that needed to be withdrawn from the river – a win-win for the City and the environment. Furthermore, in order to ensure the cleanliness of the stormwater, a hydrodynamic separator was used to filter the runoff prior to entering the cooling system and discharging into the river.
Epstein’s three additional projects along the riverfront followed a similar suit.
The River Point site, located at the confluence of the North, South and Main branches of the Chicago River, is one of the most historically significant pieces of land in the city. It served as the location for many of its first buildings, as well as the first ferry and bridges across the Chicago River. Over the years, the buildings were demolished and replaced with the Amtrak railroad lines and a parking lot.
Prior to development, the existing river bank exhibited signs of severe erosion, and vegetation was literally falling into the river due to poor support of the bank. This was solved by installing a sheet pile river wall, for which Epstein obtained permitting through local, state and federal agencies. In order to improve the quality of runoff water entering the river, Epstein designed a stormwater management system under the river walk that includes bio-filtration areas within the landscaping. They capture the rain water and store it within voids of an underground aggregate bed, where the water has a chance to recharge the groundwater prior to discharging into the river.
The stormwater runoff from a plaza area over the railroad tracks is collected and stored, where it is re-used as irrigation water. For the excess runoff, Epstein designed a hydrodynamic separator that filters out debris and other contaminants.
“The quality of stormwater coming off this site is now significantly cleaner than it was prior to the development,” Dave said.
Wolf Point West, carefully positioned near the river’s edge, features a 400-foot long river walk promenade that provides spectacular views of the skyline and water. It’s also illuminated, allowing visitors to utilize the space during all hours of the day. The initial concept for the river walk included standard sheet pile construction that required fill within the river. However, after looking at the potential impacts to the river’s shoreline, Epstein proposed a cantilevered river walk solution, which not only avoided filling in the flood plain, but also preserved and enhanced the vegetated riverbank.
The existing riverbank was the last remaining “natural bank” along the Chicago River in downtown Chicago.
“The significance of the Wolf Point site demanded a riverbank solution that retained some of the original, natural feel of the shoreline,” Dave said. “When kayakers paddle by, I think they will look over and smile and appreciate the thoughtfulness that the entire design team put into this solution.”
In 2017, the Wolf Point project was given a Chicago River Blue Award from the Friends of the Chicago River for its innovative and river-sensitive design!
150 N. Riverside presented unique challenges due to its unusual site constraints. The building’s site was located just south of the confluence of the three branches of the Chicago River, and only the building core could touch down onto the tiny ½ acre parcel between Amtrak tracks to the west and the Chicago River to the east. Needless to say, the project required our civil engineers to get creative.
Epstein worked closely with the building design team to route the stormwater to a location just behind the river wall, where a hydrodynamic separator was installed to clean and filter the runoff from the park and plaza area. We also hung the overhead sanitary sewer service from the Lake Street viaduct structure across the entire width of the Amtrak right-of-way. In order to get water to the site, Epstein designed custom structures and developed a unique stacking of the water lines to avoid disturbance of the adjacent Amtrak rail lines.
The whole design team worked with the Chicago Department of Water Management (CDWM) for their approval during the design and installation of the water services.
“There were a lot of roadblocks on this site,” Dave said. “We came up with engineering solutions that were not only cost effective, but also satisfied the regulatory requirements of the City. We took a site that was, basically, cut off from all public services and turned it into a civil engineering success.”
By making all of the civil engineering elements work, Epstein contributed to the viability of a project that adds green space to what was once an unsightly railroad yard, maintaining the continuity of the Chicago river walk system.
Chicago is a river city that sits on a lake. For the greater good of the Chicago region’s economy and environment, Mayor Emanuel and the City have identified the full range of benefits they wish to extract from the rivers. And with the steady development boom, Epstein is committed to continuing to embrace the rivers, alleviate some of their current challenges, and maximize their potential today and in the future.
“We know what we’re doing when it comes to development on a river,” Dave said. “And if a project requires a unique solution, we can step up and be creative – not only in a way that will make the project work, but also in a thoughtful way that helps a client’s budget and the treatment of the river.”