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Bubbly Creek Development: 'A Long Time Coming'

By Ed Komenda | September 12, 2016 6:16am
"Bubbly Creek Branch" in 1905
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site design group, ltd.

BRIDGEPORT — Will Bubbly Creek ever get the cleanup it needs?

Will we ever enjoy its shores as fully as those of Lake Michigan, the waterway’s big blue brother in the east? For years, you couldn’t expect many neighborhood folks to hold their breath. Like many city projects, the makeover of Bubbly Creek is a decades-long story of fits and starts.

In that time, on a waterway that's home to more than 300 athletes from across the city, Bubbly Creek has carried a reputation as a dump.

Ed Komenda talks about the future of Bubbly Creek.

But when Mayor Rahm Emanuel last month unveiled his plan for development along Chicago’s rivers — a 76-page vision that includes TLC for Bubbly Creek — water enthusiasts all over the South Side felt a long-awaited sense of forward momentum.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Jenn Gibbons, director of Recovery on Water, a program that teaches rowing to recovering breast cancer patients.

Is it possible Bubbly Creek's foul reputation is starting to crumble away?

“Litter- and odor-free”

It’s no secret: Bubbly Creek stinks.

In the days when the stock yards boomed with livestock, long-gone meatpacking plants dumped animal carcasses, grease and chemicals right into the river and formed a bed of sediment that still occasionally floats to the surfaces in the form of odor-filled bubbles.

The Chicago Stockyards. [Photos supplied by site design group ltd.]

Bubbly Creek in 1905.

The Emanuel administration's “Our Great Rivers” plan calls for “full litter- and odor-free rivers” by 2040, dialing in on environmental remediation and wildlife restoration and ideally making Bubbly Creek safe and clean enough to swim in.

There have been efforts in the past to clean up the waterway.

In the early 2000s, construction crews were building the upscale Bridgeport Village development on Bubbly Creek, a project that represented coming change on the South Side. At the time, the high-end houses were unheard of in Bridgeport and particularly on Bubbly Creek.

Perhaps seeing a trend — that in order to continue developing and growing on Bubbly Creek, someone would need to clean it up — the city hired site design group ltd., a Chicago-based landscape architecture firm, to study the feasibility of a cleanup and re-envision the eyesore as an amenity.

"It is a 'futurist' project that envisions what the creek could one day be," said Ernest Wong, principal at site design group ltd.

The project was named the "Bubbly Creek Framework Plan" and completed in 2008. The plan includes renderings of what Bubbly Creek would look like populated by neighborhood residents:

"The entire basis of the Framework Plan was to be able to encourage the growth and development of the community through the re-envisioning of the creek," Wong said. "To see Bubbly Creek as an asset instead of the spillover of sewage would tell a pretty incredible story."

As the city has seen through the Chicago Riverwalk downtown, public waterfronts can significantly increase the land value of adjacent properties, Wong said — an asset in communities with direct access to the river.

Site design's framework plan prompted more studies on the waterway.

In April 2015, hoping to beautify and restore the ecosystem of Bubbly Creek, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a report on the 1.25-mile stretch of the Chicago River's 6,600-foot-long South Fork channel, which included more than $2.65 million in cleanup recommendations.

By June, the Environmental Protection Agency discovered contaminants in the sediment and prompted the Army Corps to halt its cleanup campaign. Plans included a proposal to restore about 44 acres of water and land, according to the Tribune, by covering the creek bottom with 6 inches of sand and 6 inches of rocks.

Boosting Riverfront Attraction

Stroll along the banks of Bubbly Creek, and you might spot a few neighborhood kids casting fishing lines or rowers practicing for an upcoming race.

A crew team from Recovery on Water glides down Bubbly Creek.  [Photo by Casey Cora]

Now imagine restaurants and small businesses booming in sight of the shore.

The city's long-touted waterway plan, titled “Our Great Rivers,” includes a mixed use development built where Ashland Avenue meets Bubbly Creek in McKinley Park. The project would feature "housing, retail and riverfront recreational activities." A pedestrian bridge will cross the creek where it meets the South Branch of the Chicago River.

Ald. Patrick D. Thompson (11th), a real estate expert who served on a Bubbly Creek committee when his uncle, Richard M. Daley, was mayor, said the areas around waterways are valuable patches of property, and the city would be smart to treat them as such

“Any time you have a body of water, it’s forever light and air,” Thompson said. “You’re not going to build on water. It’s like parks. The property around parks is more valuable, because it’s light and air. It’s always going to be open, and you’re going to have that brightness coming in.”

Those are qualities developers look for in a potential investment.

“First you have to improve Bubbly Creek,” Thompson said. “It would be a great asset.”

Bubbly Creek: Pulling people together

Long before the mayor unveiled his plans, Bubbly Creek had a loyal band of supporters looking out for its best interests and preparing for the day when it finally got the attention it deserved.

In 2014, Emanuel announced plans to build the 19,000-square-foot, Jeanne Gang-designed boathouse in a bid to expand recreation in several neighborhoods near the Chicago River. The city broke ground on the boathouse in August 2015.

Set to open in the fall, the boathouse is shaping up:

A handful of neighborhood folks between Pilsen and Bridgeport recently formed the South Branch Park Advisory Council. The group’s aim is to make the Eleanor Street Boathouse a destination that draws business, tourism and foot traffic to the South Side.

James Burns, the council’s president, said he wasn’t surprised when the mayor rolled out a plan that included Bubbly Creek.

“This has been a part of his backyard" vision, Burns said. “That’s what got the ball rolling."

While construction crews have been working to finish the boathouse by the end of the year, the South Branch council has been surveying the neighborhood to see what kind of programs the neighborhood would like to see when the facility opens.

The most recent survey included programs like tumbling, yoga, dance, rowing, bingo, fitness, educational lectures and homework sessions for children. The survey, generating more than 400 responses, showed that 80 percent of people would like to see fitness and yoga programs at the boathouse.

Burns sees the city’s rivers plan as a great effort to “turn the page” on Bubbly Creek’s troubled story and transform the waterway into something beautiful.

"It's great to see," Burns said.

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