Based on a tour and then a closer look at the nearly-finished designs for Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail, the 3-mile elevated rail park may give the High Line park in New York City a run for its money. The $91 million project co-designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Collins Engineers, local Chicago artist Frances Whitehead, and others will transform an abandoned freight rail line into a wonderful, green, public-art filled elevated park for both walkers and bicyclists. What makes the park really different from the High Line? It’s in a residential area on the west side of Chicago and it’s much lower to the ground (around 18 feet high on average). There will be a set of six ramps leading up to the Trail from streets and another six from nearby parks, in effect creating seamless access between the old rail-line and the greater green tissue of the four neighborhoods it transects. In contrast, the High Line is in a dense commercial area, much higher off the ground, and only accessible via stairs and elevators.
During a tour of the Trail organized by the American Planning Association (APA), Jamie Simone, who is managing the Bloomingdale Project at the Trust for Public Land (TPL), said the park will have two paths. One will be a 14-feet-wide trail with a “soft shoulder, and landscaping, water fountains, and benches.” The other will be a meandering “nature path, an informal space for exploration.” In a unique arrangement with the city of Chicago, TPL is actually coralling all the local non-profits, city agencies, donors, and railroad companies involved. The organization, which usually functions simply as a land trust, is also becoming the “agent” that manages the park over the long-term.
The story of the Bloomingdale Trail starts around 100 years ago, with the Great Fire, which is “the beginning of so many things in Chicago,” said Ben Helphand, Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail. After the fire, the city gave the Canadian Pacific Railroad permission to build a railroad, but over time the neighborhood around the line became “very dense,” so “there were lots of crashes.” Helphand said “people were losing limbs every other day,” so a coalition of groups came together to demand that “something be done.” A city ordinance was passed that forced the rail company to raise the line, with earthen embankments on the sides. The line continued to be used through the ’70s and ’80s, at least until factories began to move out with the decline of manufacturing in the Midwest. By the ’90s, the rail line was largely silent. The result: “within a couple of seasons, a dense little forest appeared.” The prairie also came back, with snakes, frogs, birds, and other animals making their home on the long path. Helphand said he stumbled upon the Trail not soon after and “fell in love with it.”
In the early ’00s, the city began an open space plan. Through input from lots of local organizations, the city discovered that Logan Square, one of the neighborhoods the Trail runs through, had the second least amount of green space of any neighborhood in Chicago. A community planning process struggled to find new opportunities. They were focused on creating community gardens or skateboard parks until someone recommended the Bloomingdale Trail. So, fast-forwarding, in 2004, the Friends of Bloomingdale Trail was formed and the City Council gave the go-ahead to turn the elevated line into a park.
At the first stop in the tour at Walsh Park, which forms the eastern-most end of the Trail, Gia Biagi, Chicago Parks District, said the Trail isn’t just a linear park, but part of a broader system. “How long it takes you to get to the Trail and access it is as important as the park itself.” Her goal is to remove impediments that will limit use. So the Trust and the city together are demolishing some nearby buildings, and totally revamping Walsh Park, taking down part of the embankment that separates the Trail from the ground plane and adding ADA-accessible paths that will slope from the ground up into the elevated park. Walsh Park will also get a new performance space and skate park to draw people in.
All of these fantastic ideas for Walsh Park and the other “access parks” came out of a preliminary comprehensive planning process, which resulted in a rich framework plan. Simone said that process wrapped up about a year ago, after lots of public feedback. Neighbors of the Trail were really concerned about “how to protect pedestrians” with all the bicyclists. The design team found that given the Trail is only 3-miles long, there won’t be people racing, but the designers still added in pit-stops at access points so people can pause before entering the main trail stream. “It’s really now just about trail etiquette,” said Simone, who said a public education campaign about how to bike with people will be launched with the park opening.
As the bus moved around the Trail, we caught glimpses of the existing infrastructure, which is crumbling in spots, but in pretty good shape and largely structurally sound. Simone said that in phase two of the planning and design process, which just wrapped up, “we decided we’re going to accept it as it is and not clean it up too much.” She asked, “who would want to see cleaned-up ruins in Rome?” The Trail is Chicago’s Roman ruin, so the cosmetic issues will be left alone, while the structural issues will be addressed, really for safety reasons.
On top of the trail, the two paths and soft landscape architecture will provide a vivid contrast with the public art installations. Frances Whitehead, the artist involved in the design process, created a map where “art would exist and then worked with the landscape architect and engineers” to make sure the structures and landscape would hold large pieces. From the get-go, Whitehead was integrated into the design process, not just an add-on at the end. Simone said this was also necessary because some of the art requires water and electricity so all that infrastructure had to be planned out early on.
At the western-most end point of the Trail, Angel Ysaguirre, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, City of Chicago, said the artist commissioning process was “very fast.” Whitehead shepherded a commissioning process and a panel of artists selected the final work. There will be a whole set of permanent installations as well as some spaces for rotating outdoor galleries. One piece will leverage research done on the Trail about climate change, displaying the data collected in artful ways. Others will make use of spaces without natural light by adding in light and noise art. Materials taken from the site during reconstruction — cement and dirt — will be available to artists for reuse.
Perhaps the only dismaying parts of the tour was that many of the 100-plus murals lining the Trail infrastructure are going to go, largely because of the construction process. Some of them are really amazing. Ysaguirre said through the Bloomingdale Trail work, the city of Chicago has actually had to rethink its “mural policies.” It now views them as “temporary pieces of art” that aren’t meant to be there long-term, largely, perhaps because they are difficult to maintain in Chicago’s harsh weather. Still, efforts are being made to spare some, as they are a mark of the existing community and are really valuable in themselves.
At the end of the multi-hour tour, Simone said there has been “no community opposition to the plans or designs.” Some neighbors are concerned about privacy so trellises with vines will be set up in some areas to block views from the Trail into apartments. Rail lighting will also point down to the bottom of paths so there will be “minimal light pollution.”
One of the best things about the new park, said Kathy Dickhut, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Housing and Economic Development, is that it will be “grounded to the earth. People on top of the Trail can have conversations with people on the ground.”
Before the bare-bones trail opens in fall 2014 (Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s deadline), there’s a ton of stuff to do. Parts of the site are contaminated and require environmental remediation, so soils will need to be dealt with. In one spot, the Trail structure will actually be elevated with new bridges put in in order to let trucks pass underneath (currently, the clearance is very low and our bus had to go all the way around the Trail).
A number of existing bridges and other structural components will need to be repaired. Then, all the ramps will need to be built along with the new public spaces in the access parks. Much of this work will continue over the next few years, long after the park opens next fall.
Image credits:(1) Bloomingdale Trail aerial view / David Schalliol, (2-3) Bloomingdale Trail / Jared Green, ASLA, (4) Walsh Park design / Bloomingdale Trail Framework Plan, (5) Bloomingdale Trail bike and pedestrian path / Bloomingdale Trail Framework Plan, (6-7) Bloomingdale Trail / Jared Green, ASLA, (8) Bloomingdale Trail access ramp / Bloomingdale Trail Framework Plan, (9) Bloomingdale Trail nature path / Bloomingdale Trail Framework Plan, (10) Bloomingdale Trail bridge / Bloomingdale Trail Framework Plan.