EYE ON: Illinois' Bloomingdale Trail

Posted 10/09/13 by Laura Stark in

Trail rendering courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates
The whole country is talking about Chicago's Bloomingdale Trail (a.k.a. The 606). This feature from the Fall 2013 edition of Rails to Trails magazine explores how the Bloomingdale blossomed from a great idea into one of America's most exciting rail-trail projects. One of many perks provided when you become an RTC member, our quarterly magazine includes lots of great stories like this.

At nearly 20 feet above four northwestern Chicago neighborhoods, the Bloomingdale Trail will be a park in the sky. It's a lofty project to be created from an elevated rail line that once was referred to as "an overgrown linear jungle." After the Canadian Pacific Railway ended service here in the 1990s, the corridor became strewn with broken glass and trash. Plans for the rail-trail include a dramatic facelift, featuring art plazas, entertainment venues, flowering trees, winding nature walks off the main trail, an astronomy observatory, and benches where trail users can rest and enjoy the views.

Photo by David Schalliol | Rendering courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates

"A colleague calls it a 'cultural superhighway' because it's more than a trail; it's a park system and an art space," says Beth White, director of the Chicago office of The Trust for Public Land, which is heading up the project development effort with the Chicago Park District and other partners.

"It's such a unique trail," says Eric Oberg, manager of trail development at the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) Midwest Regional Office. "It will be an attraction without a doubt. Not a trail in the world is going to look like this."

Championing the project has been a 10-year effort for Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, an all-volunteer group founded in 2003. "We thought there'd be more opposition than there was," says Ben Helphand, the organization's president. "But people loved the idea."

Rendering courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates

Since those formative years, RTC has supported the project, providing technical assistance as well as funding for community workshops through its Metropolitan Grants Program sponsored by The Coca-Cola Foundation. Oberg well remembers the swell of positive energy for the trail he encountered at one of those early workshops. "There is a high level of community pride with this trail," he says. "There's been such an engagement throughout the process. To see the ideas [of trail enthusiasts] turned into reality is inspiring."

One can't talk about an elevated rail-trail without New York City's High Line entering the conversation, but there are more differences than similarities between the two projects. For one, the High Line does not permit bicycling, whereas The Bloomingdale Trail is designed to be multipurpose, featuring a concrete path for bicyclists and a parallel soft-surface track for walkers and runners. Another difference is size: Stretching 2.7 miles, the Bloomingdale is almost twice the length of its counterpart in the Big Apple.

Rendering courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates

"The biggest difference is that The Bloomingdale Trail actually goes through dense urban neighborhoods," says Oberg. "This is where people live and play and work and go to school."

It's ironic that a structure originally designed to keep people out—the towering concrete walls deterred foot traffic on the tracks—will now be used to bring them together. In the late 1990s, Chicago ranked its 77 communities in terms of open space; the four neighborhoods that the rail-trail will serve—Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park and Logan Square—were at the bottom of the list. To help remedy this, the Bloomingdale will connect a series of new and refurbished parks in what Helphand describes as an "archipelago of green space."
Photo courtesy Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates

Julia de Burgos Park, the first of the project's three new pocket parks to be completed, already is well used and well loved by the children of Logan Square, says Helphand, a resident of the neighborhood. Five schools are immediately adjacent to the trail, and The Trust for Public Land will be working with them to determine if there are ways the trail could be used as an outdoor classroom. Eight access points along the route will allow people to reach the trail from these parks and other gathering points below.

Construction of the trail began in summer 2013. The Trust for Public Land hopes to have the trail useable end to end by the fall of 2014. [Update - Feb. 2015: The trail is now set to open to the public in June 2015]

"The Bloomingdale Trail is really going to transform lives," says White. "It's a part of our industrial past that's being turned into an amenity for today and the next hundred years."

For more information on the project, visit the606.org.

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