Chicago’s Own High Line: The Bloomingdale Trail

By Jon Sedey

Photo: David B. Gleason

It’s an elevated corridor 2.6 miles long, along Bloomingdale Avenue through Chicago’s northwest neighborhoods of Bucktown, Humboldt Park, Logan Square and Wicker Park. To the passerby below, it looks like an old, abandoned track corridor. However, to the brave souls that ignore the “no trespassing” and “private property” signs and risk prosecution, this “Bloomingdale Trail” is the future linear park for walkers, joggers, bicyclists and all active transportation advocates.

The High Line park, built on a disused elevated railway in Manhattan, is the iconic project in the rails-to-trails movement. This relatively new urban renewal development, now seen in cities like Philadelphia and St. Louis, pushes policy makers and alternate transit enthusiasts to create plans to renovate abandoned railways and transform them into usable and attractive spaces.

“Cities recognize parks are good for their economies. They’re no longer nice things to have, but a must,” said Will Rogers, President and Chief Executive of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national conservation group based in San Francisco. Many case studies show a direct correlation between business growth for start-ups and creative companies as well as increased health benefits directly adjacent to these parks.

The Canadian Pacific Railway owns the elevated tracks, but the rails have been train-free for over a decade. Ben Helphand, president of the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, and Beth White, Director of TPL’s Chicago office have worked with project planners and volunteers. “It’s much more than just a trail,” said Helphand. “I see it as a thing with infinite capacity.”

Their vision is to transform the rail corridor to a green parkway that would seamlessly connect 37 blocks and four communities. “[The railroad line] has served as a physical barrier for so long between the communities,” said White. “The trail is a way for the communities to work together and learn about each other. It’s really breaking barriers in a different way.”

The project has seen an increase in attention over the past year because of a campaign pledge by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to see the project come to life during his first term. Just last month, the trail’s design and engineering study was commissioned. This will identify the costs involved and devise a more accurate timeline of the project’s completion.

Structural engineering firm ARUP, notable for the “Water Cube” at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, will design the trail and gather public input throughout the process. They will inventory the conditions of the bridges, perform environmental impact studies and make construction plans. Their work is expected to be completed in 2012.

Photo: Payton Chung

The initial plan calls for the trail to begin near the McCormick Tribune YMCA, with Logan Square to the north and Humboldt Park to the south, and run east through Bucktown and Wicker Park before ending at the Chicago River. The trail would also connect to several street-level parks that would become main entry points for the trail. Still, much of the Bloomingdale’s appeal comes in its elevated portion, which would allow for pedestrians and bikers to travel throughout the area without stopping for any traffic lights.

Alderman Roberto Maldonado (26th) lives within walking distance of the trail. As an advocate of the plan, he plans to do his weekly runs on it when it opens. “I would like it done tomorrow, if I could,” said Maldonado. “It’s a wonderful and different level of open space.”

However, not all residents are as excited about the project. Longtime Bucktown resident Joan Fox, whose house is feet from the corridor, remembers when trains would bring circus animals to town. She claims that all this publicity about the trail has brought nothing but an influx in users and crime with vagrants to the area. Her neighbors said that their buildings have been tagged with graffiti, rocks have thrown through windows and they have experienced several break-ins.

“Three feet away, you can hear them snoring,” Fox said. “I didn’t really want them living right against my house and making music into the morning hours and going to the bathroom outside my children’s window.”

Fox said she will support the project if the concerns of those who live along the trail are taken into account. “The idea is great; it’s just how will safety measures and security measures be incorporated for everyone.”

When the trail is completed, it will be owned and maintained by the Chicago Park District and the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail will be its stewards. However, TPL is negotiating and acquiring key pieces of land which they will hold prior to turning it over to the park district. TPL also helps with coordination between all parties involved, which, in addition to the Friends and the Park District includes the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development.

At this point, the total cost of the project is tough to estimate, according to Joseph Bornstein, Project Manager for the Chicago Park District, because the engineering studies have yet to be completed and the subsequent work on all of the 37 bridges has to be identified.

White said that approximately $2 to 10 million has been invested thus far, with 10% of that coming from private donations and the rest a mixture of public funds and grants. She says the pre-engineering estimate for the entire project could be about $75 million but cannot give finalized numbers because it could change on the outcome of the design and engineering study.

As for now, Helphand and White say that the communities are benefiting from the planning. Albany Whipple Park was dedicated in June and is already blooming with kids playing, dogs barking and bicycles. “What’s so exciting for us is the recognition of how important parks are to community health – economically, physically and spiritually,” said White. “It’s really fascinating to see how much people care about their parks.”

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