Elevated 606 Park Will Transform Chicago

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By Patrick Sisson / Published by Dwell
A decade in the making, an unused 2.7-mile rail line is set to become Chicago's great new park.

Weeds used to peek through the abandoned rail ties on the Bloomingdale Trail, an elevated 16-foot-tall freight line that stretched across Chicago’s near northwest side. For years, the freight line sat unused, a public secret of sorts used by neighborhood runners and the occasional graffiti artist. Nobody gave second thought to an old player piano that was left atop a bridge a few years ago and silently stood watch for months.  

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A rendering of the $91 million project, which will link up a string of Chicago’s West Side neighborhoods and, as supporters hope, become a new urban corridor. The view shows redevelopment around Churchill Park in the Bucktown neighborhood. As engineer Stan Kaderbek says, standing atop the raised path, even during construction, “gives you a whole different feeling of the community. you can see what you’re a part of.” Like many involved in the project, he believes the transformative potential of this project goes beyond beautifying. “City’s are worth saving—They’re a worthwhile investment.”

This year, however, the trail has come to life with scores of workers and cranes seeking to remake the trail into an ambitious park system that will change the character of Chicago’s west side. In progress now and set to open in 2015, the 606 (a reference to the "606" that starts local Chicago zip codes), will repurpose elements of the city’s industrial heritage to create an alternative transportation corridor for pedestrians and cyclists, according to Beth White, the Chicago Region Director for the Trust for Public Land, which is managing the project.

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The span of the 606 crossing near Milwaukee and Levitt, a section of which runs below the city’s elevated train line, will feature a billboard with rotating art. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates headed up the overall landscaping design, which will feature plants arranged to bloom as the season develops, “sentinel plants" arranged by artist Francis Whitehead that respond to temperature and climate change over time. The landscaping “goes down to grade,” according to engineer Stan Kaderbek, meaning that the deeper soil levels results in a more integrated, deep-rooted set of plants. Unlike the High Line Park in New York City, the park won't feature plantings added atop the structure.

"It’s not only making the next great park, it’s addressing other issues," she says. "I hope in ten years this serves as a model of creating something with integrity. People are beginning to understand the long-term nature of infrastructure projects. I’ve never seen this level of volunteer commitment and passion."

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A stretch of the Bloomingdale Trail facing the Milwaukee Avenue crossing. The vision for the 606 started with community groups such as the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail; the group's push helped bring the City of Chicago, Chicago Park District, and The Trust for Public land on board. A three-day design charrette in 2011 evolved into a set of final plans in 2013, as well as an impressive public-private partnership.

 

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As part of its mission to reuse urban infrastructure, the construction crew lifted and moved a century-old, 100-ton bridge from Ashland Avenue to Western Avenue with a Self-Propelled Modular Transporter. Construction crews tried to retain as much of the 16-foot-high concrete structure as possible while adding in handrails, access ramps and an undulating surface, which will provide terrain and topography on the trail. “It wasn’t Disneyland,” says engineer Stan Kaderbek. “It’s a piece of urban infrastructure that we remade for a new use.”

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When the 606 is finished next year, complete with biking and walking trails spanning the entire stretch of green space, the new park system will include an observatory, event plaza, and numerous park upgrades. It will also feature a set of access points and bike-sharing stations. “Ultimately, you’re going to energize the space,” says engineer Stan Kaderbek. “It was an abandoned thing, and now people are going to take ownership of it.”

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The elevated park under construction.

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