|High Line trail, New York City|
As an admirer of New York's High Line, an innovative repurposing of abandoned elevated Lower West Side railroad tracks into parkland, I was an early observer of Chicago's attempts to do something similar. The 606—a truly unfortunate moniker too awkward to last—opened Saturday, and rather than join the crowd for the opening festivities, I figure I'd slide by in a couple weeks to see how it's doing. (Tina Sfondeles reports on opening day in the Sun-Times, which you can read by clicking here. If you look at the video, you see how bicycles and pedestrians co-exist on a quite narrow path, and you wonder what kind of trouble that's going to cause. You might also glance at DNA Info's coverage to see how easily the name "The 606" is ignored).
This was written two years ago, when it was being constructed, and had a more user-friendly name.
The good news is that the City of Chicago has not only discovered 13 acres of new park, but found it in the green-space deprived near northwest side of the city.
Unused land, just sitting there, hiding in plain sight, year after year, waiting for somebody to notice it.
The . . . well, not quite bad news, but the challenge has been that the property for the new park is long and thin.
Very long and thin.
Two point seven miles in length, to be exact, and about 30 feet wide in most places.
It's also higher than your average city park - 16 feet above the street.
Because the Bloomingdale Trail and Park, as it will be known when it opens in 2015, is being built upon Canadian Pacific Railway tracks that head straight west from Ashland Avenue along Bloomingdale, ending at North Ridgeway.
After years of discussion, the comprehensive plan was completed this winter, and in March the city, which purchased the land for $1 from the railway in January, transferred it over to the Chicago Park District.
While three of the five small parks that will anchor and funnel people up to the trail are finished, work begins in earnest this summer to transform what is, right now, almost three miles of broken rock hashed by creosote-coated wooden ties and steel rails into a strip of bike path and hiking trail, surrounded by plants and trees that planners hope will connect and enhance the Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhoods.
"It's actually very cool," said architect Michael Wilkinson, an associate principal at Solomon Cordwell Buenz, who in 2007 was co-president of the Chicago Architecture Club when it explored what to do with the trail. "Our involvement was to say: 'Listen, this is a great opportunity, so let's not screw it up.' "
And to his semi-amazement, the project wasn't screwed up.
"The city got the message. I'm really encouraged by it," Wilkinson said. "I was a little cynical that the city would be able to pull it off, but so far they have. They've done a great job."
Not that it was just the city - getting to the point where work can begin was a complex, cooperative effort between municipal, state and federal agencies, plus private businesses, the police, local communities and residents, who had concerns ranging from security to privacy to lighting.
"I've been in this line of work for a long time, and this project has generated more staying power and more volunteer enthusiasm than anything I've seen," said Beth White, director of the Chicago area office for The Trust For Public Land, which had a key role in developing the trail. "These types of projects take a long time to do, and the fact that people have come in and supported it and are still engaged in it is impressive."
Then there was the question of money. Building a nearly three-mile public park 16 feet in the air upon century-old railroad tracks through dense urban neighborhoods does not come cheap - right now the expected cost is $91 million, with half raised from federal grants and private donations, including $5 million from Exelon and $1 million apiece from Boeing and CNA. Even some leftover NATO money was kicked in - $2 million the city didn't spend on security because Barack Obama decided to gather the world leaders at Camp David last May.
The history of this project goes back to the year after the Great Chicago Fire. The city first allowed trains to go down Bloomingdale Avenue in 1872. In 1910, the high incidence of train vs. pedestrian deaths caused the City Council to pass an ordinance requiring the tracks to be elevated, and that is what the park will be set upon - a massive earthen train embankment connected by 38 viaducts completed, coincidentally, exactly a century ago.
The tracks were largely abandoned in recent decades. Talk of doing something with them began in the late 1990s, and the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail was founded in 2003.
The idea got a boost when the first segment of the Sauganash Trail opened in 2008, and an even bigger boost in 2009 when New York City opened the High Line, a wildly successful recasting of West Side elevated train tracks into a combination promenade, park and art installation, visited by 6,000 people a day.
The Bloomingdale Trail will be even more frenetic than the High Line.
"Since we will have bicycles, it's a different feel," said White. "It will be an enhancement to get people out of their cars and walking or out on their bikes."
Bicycles not only add convenience for getting around that part of the city, but freed up Department of Transportation funds.
If the trail ends up beautiful when it is opened, that won't be an accident.
"Very early on, we pushed the city to include on the team an artist, even in the assessment of the bridges and the preliminary design," said White. "[The idea was] to make it a living work of art, not just adding art but making it artful, a fairly new thing."
Thus, there are aesthetic touches, such as the old bridge piers that will be left at St. Louis Avenue, creating a Roman ruin effect for those strolling past. (As no decision is purely aesthetic, leaving the piers has an added value: It's cheaper than removing them).
The Bloomingdale Trail is being created, in part, as a resource for schoolchildren in neighborhoods around it, to give them additional access to nature, such as seeing how plants bloom. The east end of the trail will bloom first, with spring spreading westward.
"There is the notion of looking at the entire piece as a phenological installation," said White. "We've done a lot of work with climate scientists, their hypothesis is, because the placement of Bloomingdale, on an east/west axis, there will be a five-day difference in the blooming period east to west. Landscape architects have selected plants that will be used throughout the three miles so that we can measure whether or not that will be the case. We're working with Chicago Wildness and a climate scientist out of DePaul to have an opportunity for an outdoor classroom."
Not only will the trail add bike routes, trees, plants, and pocket parks, but it will open a part of the city that usually is so off-limits that most people hardly ever consider it.
"You pass under these all the time in Chicago," said White. "But you never think what's up there. Sixteen feet isn't that high, but you get a whole different perspective on the city."
Its planners hope the trail will not only revitalize its surrounding communities, but add yet another attraction to the city as a whole.
"There's a need; really, really a direct need for the city - Logan Square and the area around Logan Square has the least amount of open public space in the city," said Richard Blender, principal of Blender Architecture and the other co-president of the Chicago Architecture Club when it studied the Bloomingdale. He predicted the trail has the potential to go from something few Chicagoans know about to something the whole world knows about. "I think it's up there with Millennium Park in terms of its ability to change the way we experience the city."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 14, 2013