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Chicago's Emerald Necklace

The Bloomingdale Trail at dusk. (Photo courtesy David Schalliol)

Among the many promises coming from the new Emanuel administration is one to the make elevated Bloomingdale Trail a reality. The mayor has promised full support for Chicago’s Bike Plan and that includes completing the 2.65-mile trail by the end of the first term. The bike transportation—as well as pedestrian—aspect of the trail may help it qualify for monies with the reauthorization of the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA), the federal transportation bill.

Chicago’s Department of Transportation is spearheading the development of the trail and CDOT spokesperson Brian Steele said in an email that it is too soon to know the funding model for maintaining the trail, but he did say that federal SAFETEA funding had potential. The trail has already received $3 million in federal dollars. It’s an argument Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail has made all along. Ben Helphand, board president of Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, notes that the Chicago’s extensive park and boulevard system has always had a bit of a gap in the north end, particularly when it comes to east-west bike accessibility. “That alone is enough to get it to be a priority,” said Helphand. “But in addition to that, it works so snugly with public transportation. People could very realistically use this for their daily commutes.” The trail connects to the CTA Blue Line and eight bus routes, and its 37 bridges provide safe passage to schools.

Beneath the trail the city has been busy assembling a series of parks at grade that are to become access points, including one in the Logan Square neighborhood that opened on June 4. Eventually, the trail will have an access point every quarter to a half of a mile. “We really think of this as an archipelago of green space,” said Helphand. In addition to Logan, some existing parks will also be incorporated, such as Churchill Field Park and Walsh Park, which will expand north as part of the plan. A park at Milwaukee Avenue is being greened. Other parks will be at Kimball Avenue and at the terminus at the McCormick Y. Other access points will be at Maplewood and Mozart avenues but there will not be parks.

Those who compare the project to the High Line in New York might face a knee-jerk reaction from Helphand, “It’s not the High Line in Chicago; it’s the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago,” he said. Beth White respectfully agreed. White is director of the Chicago region Trust for Public Land, which is acting as coordinator for the project. “This is a Chicago elevated freight line, it’s ubiquitous to Chicago. It’s grounded to the earth, because it connects to parks all the way,” said White, comparing the trail to a charm bracelet with the trail being the chain. The smaller parks might meet some of their own maintenance challenges by forming their own Local Advisory Council with the Parks District as the park in Logan Square recently did. Eventually, White anticipates “a third, a third, and a third” funding model where federal, state and local, and private sources help build and maintain the project.

Meanwhile, as the green spaces are assembled and money lined up, the public and the design firms wait. Brian Steele noted that while the timeline is still being developed, Phase One of the design contract will be awarded shortly. “We’re just waiting for our appointment with DOT,” said Tom Kennedy of Arup, the lead design firm for the project, though he ventured a bit further, saying that Phase One is “imminent.”

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