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Work will begin this summer to transform an abandoned 2.7-mile (4.4 km) stretch of elevated railway in Chicago into the Bloomingdale Trail, the city’s only pedestrian greenway and bike path running east to west, which ultimately will connect pedestrians and cyclists to trails that stretch nearly to the Indiana state line.

Inspired by the High Line in New York City and the Promenade Plantée in Paris, also rail-to-trail projects, the Bloomingdale project (which will also be called “The 606″) will create a multifunctional park system providing an alternative transportation corridor linked to mass transit, as well as offering outdoor classrooms for children and recreational opportunities.

The project had been on the drawing board for nearly a decade when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in March 2013 that development would finally get underway. “The Bloomingdale Park and Trail will be one of the most unique and user-friendly open spaces to be developed anywhere in the country,” he said.

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Concept for a typical segment of the Bloomingdale, with elevation changes and street.

The first phase of the project, which was designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Collins Engineers, and local artist Frances Whitehead, involves the repair or replacement of 37 century-old viaducts; construction of a new bridge to provide overhead clearance for trucks; and environmental remediation of areas with contaminated soil. It also entails creation of about a dozen pedestrian ramps for the handicapped linking the trail to streets and adjacent parks; spaces for numerous art installations planned along the trail and in neighborhood parks; and landscaping and installation of hardscape features, such as benches and water fountains.

“The project balances a lot of interests,” says Ben Helphand, president and one of six founding members of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail (FBT), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization formed in 2003 to advocate development of the trail. “The design team has done a delicate job, providing a minimalist design. Sometimes less is better.” Whitehead, who is also an adviser to the Trust for Public Land (TPL) for commissioning artworks, was involved in the design process from the start. The idea is to create a park that is a living work of art and sustainable at all levels, says Beth White, Chicago area office director for TPL, a national nonprofit organization that conserves land for public open space.

TPL is serving as project manager for the Bloomingdale on behalf of the Chicago Park District, a taxing entity that will own and manage the completed park. TPL also assisted the Chicago Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning, which is overseeing the planning and design of the park, with land acquisitions. TPL has also partnered with FBT to help with fundraising and community outreach.

Other partners in the project are the Chicago Department of Transportation, which is managing engineering, design, and construction, and the Bloomingdale Collaborative, which includes representatives from city agencies, the four neighborhoods the trail will traverse, and other community interest groups; the collaborative meets regularly to review progress, generate ideas, report on organizational activities, and facilitate communication among all participants in the project.

kirkbloomingdale_2_351As part of the sustainability effort, some old structures will be used as aesthetic enhancements. Old bridge piers at St. Louis Avenue, for example, will be left in place to create the effect of Roman ruins for those passing on the street level. In addition, concrete, rocks, railroad ties, rails, and other materials will be recycled or reused for trail or park enhancements.

Funding for the work, projected to cost $91 million, is coming from a mix of federal, state, and local sources, as well as private donations and corporate philanthropy. Fundraising so far has generated $39 million in federal matching grants, $4 million from the Chicago Park District and Cook County, and $12 million in private and corporate donations, White says. The city is providing $2.9 million in tax increment financing funds to create two new rail spurs near the western end of the future trail to accommodate rail lines that continue to use tracks at the end of the viaduct for car staging and switching operations.

The overall goal is “to give everyone a walk in the park and connect people to nature, each other, public transit, and bike trails,” White says. She notes that the Bloomingdale Trail will reunite four ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods—Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Wicker Park, and Bucktown—that have been separated by the railway since it was built in 1910. A total of 80,000 people live in these communities, 24,000 of whom are children.

The city has fast-tracked the project with the goal of having the basic trails open in fall 2014; enhancements, such as landscaping, hardscapes, and art installations, will take place over time, notes White.

A Linear Park System

kirkbloomingdale_4_351Running along Bloomingdale Avenue, through four densely populated northwest Chicago neighborhoods, this overgrown railroad right-of-way—currently occupied by broken rocks, creosote-coated railroad ties, and steel rails—will serve as the backbone of a new linear park system. The 13-acre (5.3 ha) park will consist of the 30-foot-wide (9 m) strip of parkland and five adjacent neighborhood parks in a configuration that White likens to a charm bracelet.

The neighborhood parks will provide access to two paths on top of the rail right-of-way, elevated 15 feet (4.6 m) above street level. One will be a 14-foot-wide (4.3 m) landscaped trail with seating, art installations, and other hardscape features; the other will be a meandering nature path.

The Railway’s History
Trains began operating along Bloomingdale Avenue in 1872, just a year after the Great Chicago Fire. But in 1910, following a high number of pedestrian deaths from train accidents, the city council passed an ordinance requiring that the tracks be elevated.

Traffic on the elevated rails dwindled along with the city’s manufacturing industries, and the Canadian Pacific Railroad finally abandoning the tracks in the mid-1990s. People began talking about doing something with the unused railway later that decade, and the FBT was launched in 2003. The idea of turning the railway into a greenway got a boost in 2008 when the Sauganash Trail, a path for hiking and biking along a converted railway, opened in a low-population area on Chicago’s far northwest side. As a result of FBT’s advocacy, the railroad this past January sold the rail right-of-way for $1 to the city of Chicago, which conveyed it to the Chicago Park District.

The railway is officially off limits to the public, but “people are already up there jogging and walking their dogs, even though access is poor and they’re not supposed to be there,” says Steve Baird, a national TPL board member and chair of the local TPL advisory board. He notes that the elevation of the trail, two-to-three stories above ground level, will provide “a treetop view of city.”

“The Bloomingdale is rooted into neighborhoods,” says Helphand. People have been using the trail walking dogs and jogging since the trains stopped running, he notes. “This space was crying out to be a park and trail,” he said, pointing out that nature took over when the railroad abandoned the tracks, creating a narrow nature preserve.

But just part of the story is above ground level. Pedestrians and neighborhood children have been taking refuge from storms underneath the viaducts supporting the railroad for the past hundred years, Helphand notes. In addition, more than 100 murals created by the Community Art Project, sponsored by the Chicago Art Group and Logan Square Neighborhood Association, line the trail infrastructure. Many will be lost during redevelopment, but some will be spared as elements with cultural value to the communities.

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Community Inclusivity
Because of the community’s connection to the old railway and its infrastructure, “there was a recognition from the start to think big and be inclusive,” says Helphand. “This project is a world-class design because it involved community members. The process was set up in a smart, inclusive way and unfolded in a way we had imagined it, which made our job easier.” Getting the community’s agenda included in plans simplified FBTs advocacy work, he explains.

FBT led the initial community outreach, launching activities to engage the community, including a bilingual survey involving 700 participants; lectures for specific interest groups, such as scientists and wildflower enthusiasts; and community meetings, including a public charrette at the YMCA. Public meetings provided a forum for discussion of neighborhood concerns about privacy, safety, and security.

FBT also worked to keep people interested during the Great Recession of 2007–2008. “We got pretty creative to keep the project alive, because during the recession everything was at a standstill,” says Helphand. “We showcased plans for the Bloomingdale envisioned by architectural students, who had made this a studio project. Some of the ideas were out there, but the show generated interest and public awareness and expanded peoples’ minds as to what is possible.”

The group also created a Burma Shave–style sign concept with the theme “Look Up” during an annual cycling event that passes under the trail. Another event, themed “Show Your Love for the Bloomingdale,” was held on two Valentine’s Days, playing up the trail’s potential as a romantic place.

TPL has been engaged in outreach activities since becoming involved in 2005, hiring a public engagement specialist who visited churches and schools and went door-to-door inviting people to public meetings, as well as published a newsletter, says Helphand.

“Thousands [of people] have been involved in every aspect of the trail,” he says. “The designers listened to people who live there. They stayed after meetings talking with people in the community, and when I saw that, I realized we were in good hands. As a result of this process, the design team’s thinking changed.”

“I’ve been really delighted, says White. “I’ve been doing this for years, but I have never seen such overwhelming support as for this project.” Despite concerns involving the interface of public and private realms, community support has grown, she notes.

Creating a Multifunctional Masterpiece
The project is the brainchild of FBT, which raised the idea during city planning meetings to develop the CitySpace Plan. This process, which analyzed open-space needs for each of the city’s 77 communities, ranked the Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods numbers two and six in terms of shortage of open space, says Helphand. It was at these meetings that the founding members of FBT met.

Helphand, who also is a Bloomingdale-area resident, notes that unlike other elevated trails, which are simply recreational projects, the Bloomingdale will serve many different needs. “This isn’t just a cool thing to do—not just a park in the sky—but will serve practical functions, alongside reuse of industrial [land] to create green space in neighborhoods with very few other opportunities,” he says.

Noting that completion of project will bring the trail within 17 blocks of the city center and three miles (4.8 km) of the city’s Riverwalk, Baird, says the trail eventually will provide a convenient way to traverse the city. Future plans call for connecting the trail to the city’s Riverwalk and Lakefront Trail, which extend all the way to Indiana. “Cyclists will be able to ride their bikes to downtown without crossing a street or stopping for a stop sign or traffic light. There’s nowhere else in the city you can do that,” Baird says. “It’s pretty amazing.”

“The Bloomingdale fits so nicely into so many community needs,” Helphand continues. It will link pedestrians with train and bus routes, provide the area’s nearly two dozen schools with an outdoor classroom for studying nature; give cyclists an east–west bike path, provide an outdoor laboratory for scientists, and offer a recreational area for exercise.

Effect on Property Values
The project will have a major impact on neighborhoods, predicts Baird, who is also president and CEO of the local real estate brokerage Baird & Warner. “Once done, I think this will be a huge amenity and will do a tremendous amount for property values,” he says. In anticipation of the project, a lot of development is taking place in these neighborhoods, with new homes being built along the trail and older homes being renovated.

TPL is providing screens, walls, and railings to ensure privacy for people living along the trail. “Some people want to be screened from the trail and others want to look at it,” he notes. Those people building and renovating homes along the trail generally prefer an open view, he notes.

Addressing the issue of potential gentrification, White notes that neighborhoods on the eastern end of the trail are already highly developed. She adds that studies show parks have a positive impact on property values, but emphasizes that for working-class neighborhoods to the west—Humboldt Park and Logan Square—“the Bloomingdale is a family asset that will serve the community rather than the type of development that would flip a community.”

“It’s not often that one gets to work on something like this,” adds Helphand. “This is an opportunity to really transform Chicago, and it’s already happening.”