The North River Commission (NRC), a nonprofit community and economic development organization based on the northwest side of Chicago, received an Our Great Rivers grant to lead a project called “Confluence.” A core objective of the Confluence project is to develop a series of physical improvements and programming surrounding Ronan Park, located adjacent to the North Branch of the Chicago River in Albany Park. Partners on the project include the Albany Park Chamber of Commerce, Perkins and Will, Omni Ecosystems, NeighborSpace, Global Gardens Refugee Training Farm, and a steering committee made up of various local stakeholders.
The vision for this project came after the North River Communities Neighborhood Plan was completed and published in 2018, in partnership between NRC and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. The plan recommends making the area surrounding Ronan Park serve as a neighborhood gateway and for the existing open spaces—the park and garden—to better function and be more inviting. Nearby sections of Chicago River have received nearly $100 million in investments in the past several years, including the 312 River Run and Riverview Bridge, and in environmental improvements by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Horner, River, and Legion Park. NRC hopes to leverage these investments to create new opportunities for the community to enjoy and benefit from the Chicago River.
NRC hopes to build more community gathering spaces in Ronan Park. These spaces include an inviting garden plaza that will welcome residents and visitors into Albany Park, and drive new business and investment to the Lawrence Avenue Commercial Corridor. The project proposes creating a platform for lively economic activity, a space for authentic cultural expression, and a catalyst that spurs investment in Lawrence Avenue. “The Albany Park Chamber of Commerce and business owners along Lawrence Ave are extremely excited about this project and the benefits it could create for the entire business district. One thing that we have heard during many of our conversations with business owners has been the need for more foot traffic and business, even pre-Covid. We are hopeful that building a more iconic gateway to Albany Park will help with customer attraction, revitalization of our diverse business corridor, and investment in the area” says Dalia Aragon from the Albany Park Chamber of Commerce.
Community and stakeholder engagement has helped to drive the project’s recommendations. Last October, NRC embarked on a three-month community engagement and design process with Perkins and Will, and Omni Ecosystems. “Community outreach is a process that never stops and will be carried out through the entirety of this project” says NRC Project Lead Carson Poole. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NRC had to pivot much of their previously planned in-person community engagement efforts to virtual meetings. They also hosted a socially-distanced outdoor community open house, reaching more than 75 people in one-on-one conversations, and collected over 200 survey responses to gauge community views about how the area functions now, and what needs to be improved. NRC has also hosted a series of small group conversations with groups of local stakeholders including: Chicago Park District, Friends of the Chicago River, the NRC Youth Council, teachers and administration from local schools, and representatives of local civic organizations including West River Neighbors.
Another major 2020 accomplishment for the Confluence project was helping establish a Park Advisory Council at River Park, which is the “parent park” to Ronan. The River PAC, made up of local residents, adds local capacity to implement further improvements and create new programs in Ronan Park for years to come.
The Confluence project is hitting the ground running in 2021. NRC plans to develop a website that will include an interactive StoryMap detailing the project and its ties to local economic development on Lawrence Avenue. The initial designs for the project area will be presented to a wider group of community stakeholders for feedback through the StoryMap. Additionally, there are plans to host a public outdoor market in Ronan Park this upcoming summer, although preparations are still underway. NRC worked with NeighborSpace to apply for participatory budget funds from the 33rd Ward Alderman’s Office to install new water and electricity for Global Gardens, and is working with the farm to add wash-pack, cold storage, and a shaded area for farmers and gardeners. NRC plans to continue engaging with local government, community residents, long-term business owners, and community organizations well into 2021 and beyond to implement the goals and vision of this project.