The Bloomingdale Trail reveals Chicago’s idea of grand city planning

Plus: What walking above the city’s West Side will look like, according to new renderings

By: Kate Dries
September 26, 2012

(aerial photo courtesy of David Schalliol)
Birds-eye view of existing Churchhill Field Park with proposed access landscape and arts plaza above Damen Avenue

“The big Republicans, men who had money and influence with the papers, were seeing the new Daley, the Daley who understood their needs, and they liked what they saw. His vision of the city was the same as theirs: downtown first. Revitalize the Loop and the nearby commerical areas and the rest of the city would follow.” 

Times have changed since Mike Royko first wrote those words in the 1971 classicBoss, a screed not only against the corruption of the political system, but the making of a modern Chicago in the hands of former mayor Richard J. Daley. City planning still seems to take over people’s lives the way it did then, but the way that planning is handled, and the projects themselves, bear little resemblance to the way past leaders have handled things.

The latest in an emphasis on a new way of development is the Bloomingdale Trail. Chicago has always had a fascination with parks, from the Burnham Plan to Millenium Park, but what’s now an overgrown and abandoned Canadian Pacific Railroad train line left over from the days when Chicago was a midwestern hub of trade has become a secret spot for those living between Humboldt Park and Bucktown to run and bike just slightly above ground.

(Rendering by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.)
Proposed Milwaukee Avenue Bridge at Leavitt Street

You’ve probably heard of the Bloomingdale Trail; it’s been politicized as much as any previous administration’s city building projects have been. This is largely due to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s campaign promise to get the project, which was first kicked off in the late 90s by the then-new group Friends of the Bloomingdale, finally finished.

Emanuel has long-touted his desire to see Chicago become a more prevalent global city, in the way that New York is. But though it’s impossible to mention the Bloomingdale Trail without mentioning New York City’s High Line, a park on that city’s west side on a no-longer-in use elevated train line, the Bloomingdale wants to be a very different kind of park than the city to the east’s is. That concept has never been more apparent than at two public meetings held this week touting the latest design plans.

(Rendering by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.)
Proposed view of Western Trailhead at Ridgeway

For starters, the endless organizations working together to create the Bloomingdale seem to sincerely want to do this to help the communities it runs through. Perhaps that’s because there are so many people involved; counting it all up, you’ve got community members and groups like the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friends of the Bloomingdale, the Chicago Park District, the Trust for Public Land, the Chicago Department of Transportation and the City of Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development.

At a presentation Tuesday evening at the American Planning Association, Jamie Simone, Program Director for Chicago Urban Parks Program at the Trust for Public Land, emphasized that the Bloomingdale Trail has amended and engaged community members at every level of the planning process. The High Line attempted a similar measure, but that project has been largely defined by a mass amount of money donated by high profile celebrities. The Bloomingdale Trail is unlikely to gain that much attention, and therefore remains a project for natives of Chicago, and perhaps natives acting as tourists to certain neighborhoods of Chicago, but it’s unlikely that true tourists of the city will venture out west.

(Rendering by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.)
Trailtop landscape near St. Louis Avenue

The problems that have cropped up already are very much that of a park meant for the community. For instance, take the issue one Chicagoan expressed at Tuesday’s meeting: he was concerned that the traffic on the Bloomingdale, which will accomodate bikers, walkers and runners (the High Line does not allow bikes) would get too heavy, much like Chicago’s Lake Shore path does, especially in the warm months. He was informed that the Lake Michigan path actually has a much higher traffic rate than similar locations in other major metropolitan cities. And, perhaps more importantly, the designers of the project don’t expect the Bloomingdale to be much of a lake front path-style destination. They’re trying to get a piece of everything for everyone, but at a slower pace.

The concerns expressed at the APA meeting were slightly different than those brought up in Humboldt Park on Monday night, where, as WBEZ reported, community members largely wanted to talk about safety concerns. But either way, this is a project that, by its nature, could not have happened without endless community input and collaboration — a far cry from the way city planning and development has been approached in decades past, and proof that perhaps some effort towards transparency in goverment is working. You couldn’t help but feel that the organizers know that a project of this scale is never going to work if they don’t actually convince community members to be invested in it themselves.

(Rendering by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.)
Proposed Milwaukee Avenue bridge at Leavitt Street

All that talk comes at a price though: time and money. The High Line functions based off of generous donations that not only helped with renovations but maintain its pristine look. Beth White, the Chicago Area Office Director for The Trust for Public Land, admitted at the APA meeting that organizers are concerned about options for maintaining the park once it soft launches in 2014.

What seems more likely is that, once built, the Bloomingdale will take on a life of its own where it bears little resemblance to the High Line, save from both of their general art and environment focused designs. It’s probably going to have to; though the numbers involved with funding the project aren’t small, they come from a hodgepodge of sources: right now, White said it’s estimated that the whole project will cost $91 million. So far, $46 million has been raised, of which $36 comes from the federal money and the US Department of Transportation, $2 million from the Chicago Parks Department and $7 million from private funders, with more of the latter to come.

The beginning/end of the trail at Ashland Avenue, as seen in 2011.

The High Line is, in a way, almost penned in by its location in a wealthy neighborhood in a wealthy borough. The ritsy Standard Hotel built around it, and even the Whitney Museum of Modern Art has jumped on board, with plans to open a downtown location adjacent to the park, sending the signal that, for the city of New York at least, the High Line is primarily a tourist destination for high living, not a park meant to integrate into normal life.

“Even though this is an elevated trainline like the High Line, that’s where the similarity ends,” Frances Whitehead, lead artist on the design team for the Bloomingdale told WBEZ at Monday’s meeting. “This is a massive, grounded, concrete, infeld, massive piece of infastructure. It is not up on legs. It is a completely different feel and is a completely different design challenge.”

And of the High Line: “I think we’re gonna smoke them.”

“We love the High Line; it’s a spectacular park,” added White. “But this is Chicago and it’ll be Chicago’s expression of the Bloomingdale….it goes through four different neighborhoods. It’s not Chelsea. It’s not Manhattan. So the density alone will make it very different.”

If the Bloomingdale Trail succeeds, it will have added acres of new park space to the city and successfully connected neighborhoods of the city that, even though they’re bumped up against each other, rarely interact. More importantly, it will have built something through the combined power of hundreds of people and more than a handful of organizations with many competing interest. That’s something to be proud of — though the original Mayor Daley might not have seen it that way.