OLD TOWN — Local conservation and parks groups are inching closer to the completion of Wild Mile Chicago: a mile-long floating eco-park that will brighten up the industrial North Branch Canal of the Chicago River.
By 2020, the finished project is expected run the course of the the river east of Goose Island between Chicago and North avenues. The Wild Mile will be marked by intentional habitats, wildlife areas, bike paths, walkways and educational areas.
Nelson Chueng, a staffer with the city’s Department of Planning and Development, unveiled updated Wild Mile designs during a Thursday community meeting at the Cornerstone Center, 1111 N. Wells St.
Chueng told a crowd of more than 50 people that because this area has been industrial for so long, most people have a hard time imagining it as a place where they could kayak, take a stroll with their kids or escape for a midday lunch break.
“That’s really our goal: exposing [the river], showing it, actually reclaiming it,” he said.
Wild Mile Chicago was first conceived as part of the North Branch Framework Plan, which was approved by the Chicago Plan Commission in 2017. (The plan can be reviewed here.)
Leaders think the 17-acre in-stream river park will be one of the “defining public open spaces for the modernization of the North Branch Industrial Corridor,” according to Wild Mile’s website.
The initial 1,500 square feet of the park was installed in June 2017 by Urban Rivers. An educational platform and kayak launch will be competed this spring. The remainder of the project will be completed by next year, according to the website.
During Thursday’s meeting, the large crowd studied several slides of a PowerPoint presentation that showed what each block of the river would look like.
The Eastman Street/REI section outside the newly created REI store will include a pathway, platforms for educational programming, floating habitat rafts and interpretive signs.
The Hobbie Street Cove area will include slope stabilization, gravel pathways and native trees. A waterfall is planned for the Whole Foods Edge/Blackhawk section.
Thursday’s presentation also detailed the science behind how the habitats will be created and sustained. Biofilm and algae will be introduced so a manmade canal will transform into a lush home for plants and wildlife. The goal is to eventually attract herons, hummingbirds, butterflies and other “awe-inspiring” animals.
While the majority of the Wild Mile project will change the east side of the river, there were some ideas that will affect the Bucktown community.
At the corner of North and Magnolia Avenues, the project includes designs for a kayak launch station and a nature-related project. It’s possible the project will be an outdoor amphitheater.
A second West Town river access point is planned just southwest of Goose Island at Division Street.
During the meeting, a staffer from the Shedd Aquarium stood up and offered enthusiastic support for the idea.
While most people are familiar with the aquarium building itself, the staffer said, Shedd Aquarium is also dedicated to a larger mission of conservation and aquatic education efforts citywide.
Last year, the aquarium installed floating gardens with the help of Urban Rivers, and, within three weeks, 400 people had signed up to get in kayaks and engage with the gardens.
“It was astounding,” she said. “It was something people just couldn’t imagine was in their backyard.”
During Thursday’s hour-and-a-half-long presentation, Chueng explained the primary partners behind the project include Neighborspace, Urban Rivers and Near North Unity.
But Chueng impressed upon the crowd that the Wild Mile will ultimately be a “shared responsibility” between those groups and neighboring properties, such as Groupon, Whole Foods and REI.
He also said the added river connectivity from the Lincoln Yards development can help connect more people to the Wild Mile.
Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) told the crowd many pieces of the project lie within Tax Increment Financing districts. Those won’t pay for the entirety of the project, but they can help, he said.
“We’re very blessed to be in this area,” he said.
Those who want to experience the river and learn more about the Wild Mile project can participate in any of the following free events this weekend:
- 6:30-8:30 p.m. Friday: boat tour with the Chicago Water Taxi, meet at Cherry Street, just south of North Avenue
- 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday: canoe trip with Kayak Chicago, meet at 1501 N. Magnolia Ave.
- 2-5 p.m. Saturday: hands-on garden activity with REI and Urban Rivers, meet at REI, 905 W. Eastman Ave.
The Department of Natural Resources, the Army Corps of Engineers, the United States Coast Guard and the city of Chicago share governmental jurisdiction over the river, which is a federal commercial waterway, Chueng said.