The plan includes the construction of four new boathouses to draw visitors.
The river has long been an important part of Chicago's economy as a way to transport goods, but now, the waterway is at the center of a major effort to clean it up and make it ready for fun.
Promoting the potential of the Chicago River has long been a challenge. In the mid-1970s, the late mayor Richard J. Daley drew laughs at a civic meeting when he proposed catching and eating fish out of the river.
Emanuel is also setting his sights on the river, wanting to change it from an afterthought to a recreational destination.
"I want that river to be for all of us what the lake has been for all of us," said Emanuel. "It has been always envisioned for commercial traffic. We're now to make it a place of residential livelihood."
Emanuel was joined by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, who announced more than $800,000 in grants to help clean up the river and spur job creation.
The mayor also announced the construction of four boathouses at a cost of $4 million each at various points along the river. They are to have concessions and kayak rentals.
Emanuel's river initiative is welcome news for advocates of the river.
"This idea that the city is going to lead the way, that there's federal money to help out improve water quality, that there's an edict from the top that says the water needs to be clean enough for everybody, no matter who you are, that's just tremendous change in progress," said Margaret Frisbie of Friends of the Chicago River.
Already in the works is the Chicago River Race, which is set for October 2012. International teams of rowers would compete in that race on a course from Cermak Bridge to the Merchandise Mart.
Chicago public school students involved in a rowing club would participate, making the river more accessible to more communities.
"We've been very good in our efforts trying to engage the inner city to make use of the river, and this only validates that approach," said Montana Butsch of the Chicago Training Center.
The boat houses are scheduled to be completed by 2013 and funded through a mix of public and private funds.