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Railbed Redux
Design work on Bloomingdale Trail begins, setting stage for Chicago's answer to the High Line
Paul Smith/Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail

Chicago’s answer to the High Line begins to take shape this fall, with the City of Chicago’s selection of a team helmed by Arup North America to transform a disused, elevated rail line into the Bloomingdale Trail.

Running for 2.7 miles along Bloomingdale Avenue in northwest Chicago, the rail line is owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway but has been unused for years, and is now rife with weeds and debris. Despite the project’s basic similarity to Manhattan’s High Line, which opened this spring on the dense, mixed-use West Side, the Bloomingdale Trail will be a mile longer and will pass through four residential neighborhoods with a range of income levels.

Also unlike the pedestrian High Line, the Bloomingdale Trail may become a pivotal part of the city’s network of bike trails, judging from public visioning charrettes conducted by Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, a nonprofit formed to serve as the trail’s stewards. “What we learned from the charrettes was that walking and biking were neck-and-neck in terms of how people wanted to use the trail,” said Friends board president Ben Helphand.

Though comparisons have been made to New York's High Line, the Bloomingdale Trail is nearly twice as long and may include more active uses, such as bicycle trails.
Paul Smith/Courtesy Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail

The trail’s program will be the focus of the first phase of planning, which will start early next year and take about 18 months. That time will also be spent sorting out property holdings along the trail and conducting structural analyses of the 37 concrete viaducts that support the rail line. “None of the viaducts are in severe shape, but all would need at least some upgrading,” said Brian Steele of the Chicago Department of Transportation. Although the city has acquired $3 million of federal and local funding for the design process, securing funding for construction will be a central aim in the coming months as well.

Arup’s team impressed the city with its resume of related projects (the team includes Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, currently working on the Brooklyn Bridge Park), their mix of global and local experience (other partners include Chicago-based Ross Barney Architects and Burns & McDonnell engineers), and their dedication. “We purposefully didn’t specify which team members should come to the interview because we wanted to see who showed up. Would the people from out-of-town bother to come?” said Janet Attarian, project director for the Chicago DOT.

Even before Arup’s work begins, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land will create regular access points to the trail by acquiring adjacent parcels of land, which are becoming destinations in their own right. “I think of the trail as an archipelago because it has so many emerging parks along it. It’s already spawned four completely new green spaces,” Helphand said.

A version of this article appeared in AN 01_10.14.2009_MW.

Julia Galef