12 jun 08 | The Chicago Tribune

Smith and Gill's "eco-bridge": coming to Chicago's lakefront?

By Blair Kamin

Picture this on the downtown lakefront: A two mile-long land bridge arcing into Lake Michigan and outfitted with wind turbines and a soaring central observation tower. The "Eco-Bridge" Chicago architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill call it. They've been quietly shopping the idea over the past year to civic, business and political leaders, including Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Let's set aside for now the inconvenient hurdle that the land bridge would cost $1 billion and no funding source has been identified.

The bridge, a 21st Century update of a comparable breakwater scheme in Daniel Burnham's celebrated 1909 Plan of Chicago, would form a grand civic space and a harbor, stretching from the Adler Planetarium on the south to East Wacker Drive on the north. You could walk on it, jog on it, maybe even bike on it.

The bridge's observation tower would provide a place to gaze back at the skyline and a display platform for the Olympic flame should Chicago be selected as the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics. It would be built on slag, a byproduct of steel-making, and the slag would be permeable, Smith said, allowing fish to use it as a habitat.

"We've covered a lot of bases. Everyone has been has been conceptually for it," Smith said Thursday in telephone interview from London. "The biggest hang-up is probably the money."

Among the heavy hitters the idea has been presented to, Smith said, are Sadhu Johnston, a deputy mayor and Daley's chief environmental adviser; former Sara Lee Corp. chairman John Bryan; Pat Ryan, the Aon executive chairman who is heading up Chicago's Olympic bid; and members of the Chicago Central Area Committee, the influential group of downtown business and cultural leaders.

The architects have also presented the plan to conservationists, wind energy engineers and developers of wind energy. However, they have not met with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which traditionally has a say in shoreline re-development.

Beyond providing a vivid symbol of Daley's efforts to transform Chicago into "the greenest city in America," the plan is being pushed with a more practical aim in mind: Boosting tourism. Citing how Millennium Park has improved the downtown economy, Smith said of the Eco-Bridge: "We see it as another major attraction...that would draw more people to Chicago."

Smith is used to thinking big. A former partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago, the firm responsible for Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center, he's the chief designer for the 92-story Trump International Hotel & Tower Chicago, which will be the city's second-tallest building when it is completed next year. His credits also include the under-construction Burj Dubai, a mixed-used tower in Dubai that is already the world's tallest building even though it won't be finished until next year. The Burj's height, a closely-guarded secret, is expected to be about 2,600 feet, or half a mile into the sky.

The harbor formed by the Eco-Bridge could house 5,000 to 10,000 boats, depending on the types of moorings that were used, and could replace the current Monroe Harbor if that harbor needed to be converted to an Olympic rowing site, Smith said. Chicago's Olympic plan for the 2016 Summer Games proposes a rowing site off the shoreline of Grant Park.

"In order to make that a serious site," Smith said of Monroe Harbor, "you'd have to get rid of the boats for a couple of years. If you did this, you could simply move the boats" to the new harbor. Afterwards, he said, the Olympic rowing site might stay free of boats and become a sailing school or some other type of water amenity for the public.

There are other hurdles besides the big price tag. In its current form, the Eco-Bridge plan calls for "vertical-axis" wind turbines instead of conventional turbines that use propeller blades, in part because the latter are considered ungainly. But the vertical turbines don't generate as much power as propeller tubines, Smith said.

The next step?

"Talking to the Corps of Engineers and then finding a billion dollars," Smith quipped.

Sounding more serious, he added: "I think the mayor would support it. He was enthusiastic about it initially. We need to touch all the bases and we need to know that public opinion is for us."