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Park Oasis Planned for Abandoned Rail Line

by Bryce Wolfe
July 15, 2008 – France boasts the only elevated park in the world, but Chicago plans to match the feat with the Bloomingdale Trail. Like its Parisian counterpart, the Promenade Plantée , and New York City‘s proposed High Line , the trail here would transform an abandoned railroad viaduct into a three-mile oasis and cut a green slice through a dense urban streetscape on Chicago’s West Side.

The Bloomingdale Trail – named after Bloomingdale Avenue, which runs adjacent to the viaduct – would run through Wicker Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park and Logan Square, from Ashland Avenue near the Chicago River to Ridgeway Avenue near the McCormick Tribune YMCA. It could eventually link to trails heading north to Ravenswood and south to the Loop.

Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail has been working with the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, the Trust for Public Land and neighborhood residents to muster support and funds for the project. Last summer the city acquired several parcels of land in Logan Square between Albany Avenue and Whipple Street, and the park district hopes to build a children’s park on the land to serve as an access point for the trail, where bikers and pedestrians can enter and exit the elevated path.

“The Albany-Whipple site will be a boost to the future Bloomingdale Trail, but it’s also vital to give kids a place to play sooner than later,” said Beth White, director of the Trust for Public Land’s Chicago area office.

Christ Gent, deputy director of Chicago Park District‘s Planning & Development, said the park would feature a permeable rubber surface, fountains and ramp to the Bloomingdale Trail. The land was purchased by the Trust for Public Land in the summer of 2006. The park district realized the trail would need access points, said Gent, but nobody wanted to displace people in the surrounding high-density areas. The design for the access ramp features a tight zigzag to maximize the limited space while remaining wheelchair friendly. Still, the park district hopes to acquire a final, vacant parcel of land in order to expand the park and design a larger ramp.

According to the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and a 2004 open-space study, that Northwest Side community has the second smallest amount of park space out of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. Although the Chicago Park District would like to see at least two acres of open space for every 1,000 residents, Logan Square has only one half acre for every 1,000 residents. The Bloomingdale Trail would bring 12 new acres, said Gent.

“There are 11 schools within a quarter mile of the trail, with three right on it. For them, the Bloomingdale Trail will provide safe routes to school, easy access to parks and a car-less oasis to walk, bike and explore with their family and friends,” said Ben Helphand, co-founder of the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail.

Last month at a meeting about the trail, a resident voiced concern about weeds along the elevated path and complained about unkempt land encroaching into her backyard. Right now, said Gent, the park district is not responsible for land along the viaducts because the Canadian Pacific Railway still owns the railroad. Once the Chicago Park District acquires the property, it will maintain the trail and parkland. The trail itself will be lit and fenced, said Gent, but not gated.

Construction of the Albany-Whipple access ramp and children’s park is being funded in part by an Open Space Land Acquisition and Development Grant and in part by the Chicago Park District. Gent said $400,000 will come from the grant and another $400,000 from the park district’s budget. The cost of the entire project, transforming an abandoned railroad into a usable trail, is estimated to be $41.8 million.

“It’s a long-term process,” said Gent. “It’ll be at least five years before a shovel hits the ground.” Lucy Gomez-Feliciano, a health organizer for the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, has been working with residents to build support. Some people fear the Bloomingdale Trail will invite more crime, she said, but already the trail is littered with garbage, makeshift shelters and used needles. Instead of kids going up and poking around abandoned railroad tracks, she said, a converted greenway maintained by the park district will give them a safe and clean place to play.

Logan Square resident Kerry Geiger lives on Whipple Street, beside the proposed children’s park. His biggest concern isn’t safety; he just wants to be able to back his car out of his driveway. The park district wants to build a fence around the park, which would cut through what once was an alley, and Geiger said he isn’t sure he’ll have enough room to park anymore. He will have to take his concerns to the Chicago Department of Transportation , said Gent, as the park district doesn’t have jurisdiction over the roadways.

As for the playground itself, Geiger doesn’t mind. His property value will go up due to the parkland, he said, and his grandkids will finally have somewhere to play.

“It might get noisy,” he said. “I’ll just turn my music up. No big deal.”

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