Bloomingdale Trail public involvement process reached a milestone this week


A view of the Bloomingdale Trail at Spaulding Avenue. At least one person in the audience asked for a rail car or two remain in the new park. Photo by Colin Clinard. 

On the evening of Tuesday, October 4, 2011, I attended the final presentation from the Bloomingdale “charrette weekend” at the McCormick Tribune YMCA, 1834 N Lawndale. The charrette weekend hosted invited stakeholders and members of the public who gathered with the design team to learn about the Bloomingdale Trail history, devise the topics they cared about, and express ideas and concerns about the project. For 16 hours on Monday and Tuesday, the design team synthesized all of the conversations, contribution, and ideas into a final presentation that took about 90 minutes to examine.

What follows is a detailed description of who said what about the project. I’ve divided the article into many sections with bold text headings for easier reading. I imagine that this article will evolve as people ask me questions.

What is the project

The Bloomingdale Trail is a project to transform an abandoned, elevated railroad line that starts in west Logan Square/Humboldt Park and ends in Wicker Park/Bucktown into a linear park and multi-use trail undertaken by the Friends of the Bloomingdale Trail, Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT; the client and builder), the Chicago Park District (eventual owner), Trust for Public Land, and CDOT’s contractors.

Who is the design team

The design team is the group of experts at CDOT (including Janet Attarian’s sustainable projects team) and staff assembled by Arup, a multinational planning and engineering firm. They’re the primary contractor who won the bid in 2009. Subcontractors include Ross Barney Architects in Chicago and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, landscape architects, in Brooklyn, NY.

Not designed yet

Many people at the event and who I’ve discussed with in person and online are curious or confused about the “design status” of the project. The status is that a design does not exist. And one will not exist for probably at least a year. The purpose of the charrette weekend was to understand the concerns of community members (you and me) in order to develop a “framework plan”, that is, a document that would guide the design team in their work.

Because there’s no design and plan for its construction or operation, many of your questions probably do not have answers, like whether or not it will be open 24 hours, or who will be responsible for keeping it safe.

Concurrently, though, engineers are surveying and measuring the Bloomingdale Trail property as part of Phase I engineering. Janet said at the meeting, “We go through this process when we have state and federal funds to find out about property we want to take, what it’s condition is, and are there biological or cultural issues we must know about and address before we take the property”.

What you are seeing are possibilities for discussion

When you see graphics and photos at this stage in the project’s development, you are seeing two things: 1) drawings and renderings of existing conditions as well as 2) demonstrations for possible ideas and elements to see, use, or experience while on the Bloomingdale Trail.

With the information the design team gathered over four days (Saturday through Tuesday afternoon), they will develop a “framework plan” that “sets a framework and vision, with guiding principles, with goals, to create a holistic planning and design process” (Janet Attarian). She stressed: “It is not a detailed design process”. There will be at least two more public meetings before that begins.

What was shown at the meeting on Tuesday

The slideshow that was shown can be downloaded. You should download it now and have it open while you read this blog because it’s heavy on graphics and light on explanations. It’s a 34 MB PDF. There’s also an archive of meeting documents on the Bloomingdale Trail website.

Janet explained the project status and vision in the first section of the presentation, pages 2-5. Then she talked about the funding they should be receiving from the federal government, with Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grants (CMAQ). This grant program is only for transportation projects and people have long envisioned the Bloomingdale Trail as part of the bikeway and walking network in Chicago. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), the local administrator of the grant program, is expected to approve CMAQ funds for the project this month (pages 6-8); a state and local match will comprise 20% of $46,275,000. Janet estimated that half will be used for site improvements and the other half for infrastructure.

Then Carol Ross Barney, lead architect, stood up to talk about the history of the Bloomingdale Trail. She discussed slides 10 and 11 which showed the many “edge conditions”, the different configurations and relationships the trail viaduct has with adjacent streets, parks, and buildings.

Next Matthew Urbanski of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates stood up to present the remaining slides. He first talked about the functions of the Bloomingdale Trail and themes to get people thinking about its purpose.

  • Should the Bloomingdale Trail be more like a park or trail? (slide 13)
  • Should the Bloomingdale Trail be more of a civic space or green space? (slide 14)
  • Should the Bloomingdale Trail’s plantings be cultivated or wild? (slide 15)

He mentioned the High Line in New York City, saying, “It’s not a trail, a linear park, an elevated promenade (famous because they advertise it a lot). If that’s a bridge, then the Bloomingdale Trail is a series of monumental boxes connected by bridges.” View this photo to see how monumental it is.

Matthew then talked about the trail and showed three possibilities of “horizontal variation”, or how the trail might look from side to side. It could be a single trail in a straight path, or two trails in a straight path, or a single trail in a meandering path. It could be none of these or a combination. And while the railroad needed a flat surface, people don’t – “people like variety, we could dip down the trail”. Having the trail move up and down could be a way to get ecological variety: low parts would be wetter and high parts would be drier and get more sun. Slide 25 shows 9 combinations of different horizontal and vertical variations.


A slide showing horizontal variation. 

Tom Kennedy, an engineer with Arup, presented next. He talked a little about the interactions in the charrette weekend. “There were very animated, intense discussions. Lots of ‘ah-ha’ moments. Very few punches were thrown”, he joked. And joking again, he said, “In case you’re wondering about the future of the trail, the writing’s on the wall”. After playing a short documentary video created by youth in Free Spirit Media, he sat down. See slides 28 through 33.


Keep your slideshow PDF open. Matthew Urbanski summarized what the design team drew from the charrette weekend. Slide 34.

  • People want a park and multi-use trail but fear conflict between people walking and biking.
  • People want many access points.
  • Immediate neighbors, some 0 inches from the viaduct, want privacy.
  • People embrace horizontal and vertical variation for the trail.
  • People feel the elevated portion should be programmatically simple. People really saw the elevated part of the trail as about going back and forth and getting into nature. They didn’t feel that there should be other uses added to it.
  • People believe art should express the complexity of the neighborhoods, the history of the trail, and enhance the understanding of contemporary urban life.
If those were the ideas that attendees made explicit, there were three observations that were implicit, which the design team called the “assumptions” (slide 35). They are accessibility (required by law), sustainability (re-using structures, embedding well-adapted plants), and maintainability (designing it to fit the abilities of the Chicago Park District).

Framework topics

From the charrette weekend and the design team’s “crunching”, they came up with 13 framework topics. See slides 36 through 74. I’m paraphrasing here what Matthew said. People mentioned are those who participated in the charrette weekend. Numbers represent the slide.

  • Urban network
    How will it link within larger transportation network? Metra station. Envisioned as new “linkage” between other open spaces (both parks and even indoor rec spaces). 37-38
  • Access points
    Increase these. Where should new ones be (in addition to ones already planned)? They should be major, prioritized access points; if there was a place that made sense, but only space for stairs, then that should be considered. We’re going to take this access point wish list to determine which are priority, and which are important. Design of each access point should respond to the particular challenges of its location. They should strive to provide additional amenities or unique experiences. Coordinate access points with grade level destinations and road crossings. 39-42
  • Path design
    Should balance mobility with park aspirations, prioritizing experience over speed. design should clearly communicate expectations about speed. Use grade change to achieve modal separation. 43-46
  • Landscape
    Should provide connection to natural world (someone mentioned they’d like to go up there and “zen out”). Should provide a material connection between levels. landscaping not only being on top, but going down to ground level (with vines or matching trees). Provide a sense of mystery and opportunity for discovery and education. Should increase spatial variety (plantings placed in various places around the trail) and ecological range. 47-53
  • Activities and uses
    Use of trail is derived from its essence as a lifted landscape in an urban setting. Activities on the trail will serve individuals and small groups (not so much big gatherings). Ground level should be used to accommodate neighborhood uses (playgrounds, basketball courts, skate parks). Access parks can enhance the relationship between the ground level and the elevated park (be a transition/connection park). Design should promote year-round use. 54-58
  • Art (Jon Pounds)
    Art will be integrated into the planning and reconstruction of the trail by including artists in the design process. 100 years ago, art would have consisted of statues of political and military men; 50 years ago, statues of business men along with some modernist irony that you’d have to look for. Art will encourage residents to take pride in the trail and will introduce visitors to the neighborhoods. There are 35 bridge underpasses perfect for art. It should improve things like stewardship – people take great pride in the place they live. Lastly, there’s no plan for what the art will be. 59-61
  • History
    Acknowledges the construction of the structure into the design of the trail. Superficial cracks only, mostly very sound, only needs surface repair. It’s not gonna fall down. There’s a monumentality of it that people were resonating with. 62
  • Privacy
    The design should respond to the privacy desired by neighbors while also providing “eyes on the trail” (slide shows using a wall as a screen; slide shows bikes on the edge side so people weren’t hanging out at the windows; slide shows grade separation to hide behind wall; slide shows using vegetation as screen). 63-64
  • Security
    Should be commensurate with other public spaces in Chicago. It’s of course a privately-owned property now which does contribute to some bad behavior. People had concern about how police would police the space, whether on foot, bike, Segways, or patrol cars. Should it close or stay open all night? How long can bicyclists stay on? The park should be a respite from the city that is also safe. Increase the number of egress points. 65-67
  • Lighting
    Should be low intensity and evenly distributed across the entire width of the site. Minimize light trespass to adjacent property (leakage). If the lights went off at night, could there be motion detectors that could turn them back on? Or, after park closes, have a low level of lighting (like path lighting in a front yard). 68-69
  • Seating
    Integrate seating into the landscape. Provide a range of seating for individuals and small groups. Lots of discussion about dogs: group was split in half about whether or not they should be allowed on the trail. Provide seating that is facing inward to the trail center and outward (especially at places with views). 70-72
  • Commerce
    Design should consider how and where to accommodate the eventual inclusion of commercial activities such as farmers markets, food vendors, and bike rentals [or bike sharing?]. Is it on top or at ground level? My experience: the more distant the location from people, the harder it is for vendor to survive. 73
  • Signage
    Should highlight neighborhood amenities and transit connections. Should be at street and neighborhood level to clearly direct people to and from safe access points. Should be on the trail and at ground level. 74


A slide showing various possible landscape options on the viaduct.

Public comments

The following are my selected comments from members of the public, either listed on the enormous aerial map posted in the McCormick YMCA gym, or spoken to the presentation attendees at the end of the presentation.


I took photographs of people’s comments they attached to the map. You can see my full set on Flickr. I’ve transcribed some of them below.


1. At Western Avenue: Make it safer to cross Western. (In slide 42, Matthew implied that the Bloomingdale Trail could be used as a kind of overhead walkway for people to cross Western Avenue, with access points on both sides of the street.) Photo

2. At the Leavitt access point and park: allow sledding, build a dog park, build a performance space. Photo

3. At Churchill Park: build an Tollway Oasis-like dining area on the viaduct, install a kiosk that maps local businesses on North and Armitage Avenues. Photo

4. At Walsh Park: Make a pedway like “Fern Gully”, don’t install lights because there’s plenty of ambient light that makes it up to the viaduct, build trailhead parking. Photo

5. At Kimball Avenue: Make an urban farm, build a dog park, expose the infiltration movement of water. Photo

Audience members

Twelve people from the audience stood up to speak to the design team and others in the audience; all of them were men. I’ve paraphrased their comments here. Responses from the design team are in parentheses.

C.H. – Will there be handrails? (Yes.) I would like more information on upcoming charrettes – you should advertise better. Will there be restrooms?

J.W. – What is the plan for funding maintenance? (We are still looking into that; we’re looking at models with the Trust for Public Land and at public-private partnerships.) I haven’t heard you address noise pollution problems. (Feedback about noise is that people understand there’s no room for big gatherings like a concert or party. If there are noisy activities – relatively noisy skateboarding for instance – the way you shape the land has a lot to do with noise mitigation. We built a skate park in a park and afterwards, those who had complained weren’t sure why they complained before it was built.)

G.T. –  Has there been any consideration in recent times for a bridge across the river? It would be great as a connection to east side. Cortland and North Avenue and terrible places to get across the river with children. ( Tom: Everything’s feasible with money. It makes perfect sense! It’s something that came up in the charrette, and showed up in a lot of the drawings. But we’re stopping at Ashland because that’s the legal boundary.) Author’s note: This may not be accurate. They’re stopping at Ashland because that’s a logical stopping point as access east of there is highly complicated, with multiple owners of various railroad property between Ashland and the Chicago River.

S.D. –  Bike lanes showed in slides seemed twice as wide as pedestrian paths. How wide is a bike lane? (12 feet for combined use.) Scariest thing to do with a family is walk down the Lakefront Trail with 1,000 bikes; I’m not anti-bike, I bike to work. If you’re gonna separate the bike path, great. If you combine the two, how am I going to bring my 5-year-old?

Path/trail widths

At least one audience member who spoke at the end was confused about how much width there would be for a bike path and how much width there would be for pedestrians and I don’t think the design team caught that confusion – if they did, they would have clarified this. The American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) guide to bicycle facilities 2010 says,

The appropriate paved width for a shared use path is dependent on the context, volume, and mix of users. The minimum paved width for a two‐directional shared use path is 10 feet.

The design team was displaying and telling it would have to be at least 12 feet wide (wider is better). That means 12 feet for both people walking and people biking. That’s the width of most of the Lakefront Trail. Since the viaduct is 30 or more feet wide, that means 18+ feet for everything else: trees, landscaping, access points, etc. (The NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide, upon which the Kinzie Street protected bike lane is based, does not address off-street or shared-use paths.)


Graphic from a previous presentation shows a 10 feet wide shared path. That’s 10 feet for both people walking and biking. At Tuesday’s presentation, the design team talked about 12 feet width paths for both modes. 

My comment on this presentation and process

I’m thoroughly impressed by the quality of work shown at the presentation, as well as the entire public involvement process. In a city well-known for its secrecy, I appreciate the openness of the process that’s behind the design and construction of the Bloomingdale Trail.

The benefits of such a deeply involving design process are numerous. Residents have many opportunities to share their concerns directly with the people who will be developing the plans; longer term, this will help alleviate complaints and frustration. By meeting so many times with members of the public, the design team is educating them to the fullest extent which increases their participation and investment in the project. The result will be that the Bloomingdale Trail will have a large group of constituents that care deeply for its success and continuance. By being transparent and inviting every Chicagoan to become involved, the project managers are ensuring that the project has shared ownership and frees it from charges of collusion.

I’ve left my own comments on the project goals and features on various solicitations (like this questionnaire), in comment cards, and on the aerial map.

Next steps

  • Engineering and legal staff will continue surveying property
  • Design team will develop framework plan
  • Design team will schedule more public meetings, one in December and one in March (other meetings with stakeholders will also take place)

How people can make their own comments


My answer to the question, “What characteristics, activities, and/or features should the Bloomingdale Trail include?” was 1) have separate paths for walking, or slow traffic, and bicycling, or fast traffic; and 2) access points should avoid having stairs. 

Ask your questions in the comments and I will try to answer them. What you read here comprises a majority of the notes I took, but not everything.

30 thoughts on “Bloomingdale Trail public involvement process reached a milestone this week”

  1. What a waste of valuable right-of-way in an area that could be served with a good cross-town light rail system. Land as valuable as this should not be used for the needs of recreation.

    1. It’s not purely for recreation it will offer people who bike a car-free route nearly 3 miles long. 

      No one has proposed or put serious thought into transforming this into a route for transit. The planning for the Bloomingdale Trail as a park and path began over 13 years ago. 

      1. The CTA Blue Line does not parallel this service. If a fly-over was installed across the MD-N district, service to the former Brickyard could be had. Once Finkl is moved, the line could be extended into Lincoln Park, parallel to an Armitage alignment (with street running), and to the lake.  Mind you, it would be difficult to get across the Union Pacific tracks at CY tower near Clybourn Junction; a fly-over isn’t possible due to the height requirements under the Kennedy and the bridge across the North Branch. Perhaps a shallow tunnel could be bored, or a deeper tunnel extended from west of Ashland east of the river.

        A 3-mile separate bike path is great, if it goes somewhere. However, does this really connect anything, and will it? I see no major cycling connections that can be made in the near future (industry areas to the west, and the depressing Ashland Avenue corridor to the east). I’m all for bike paths, but this seems like a senseless waste of ROW, and I sure the hell hope that whomever makes the deal adds a contingent for future transit use when gas goes beyond $8/gallon.

        1. As much as I love the idea of the BT, I do think Marcus makes a good point. If money were no option, I can’t imagine we’d want to prioritize a bike/ped path on this ROW over a badly-needed E-W transit connection. 

          Now I know it’s pie-in-the-sky, given the funding problems the CTA has, but connecting Humboldt Park, Bucktown, Wicker Park and Lincoln Park with rail service would be a huge improvement for Chicago transit. I guess this at least preserves the ROW, but it seems like there’s no chance for potential reuse as a rail corridor once the BT opens.

          1. Aaron, why do I always seem to be responding to you all over the internet lately?

            In theory Marcus makes a good point, but then if you start checking feasibility and existing CTA ROW options in the area you quickly realize that there is simply no need for the Bloomingdale Trail to be utilized as a mass transit corridor.

            The ROW still exists for the old Humbolt Park branch, , running clear to Lawndale, with an additional inline alley running almost interrupted, and in a straight shot, to Central Ave.

          2. Didn’t know that ROW was still there. Is it the alley between North Ave. and Wabansia? 

          3. Building an elevated structure will just be far too costly. You will never see an elevated be built again in Chicago…the cost is far too high for the benefits. We can barely get funding for a fly-over that will be used by 100 revenue freight trains a day, let alone funding for an elevated system.

            Existing options for E-W connections are good, yes, but very slow and awkward. As congestion increases, North Avenue buses are going to be a horrible option.  In the future, you’ll see the need for tunneling under North Avenue as a way to alleviate congestion; a shame, really, when an alternative exists that is not being preserved.

          4. MT: Thanks for the map, I would kill for the Pink line to still connect to Berwyn (ROW still exists too!)

            While I tend to agree that the days of new elevated lines are numbered (possible Howard branch rebuild notwithstanding), I do see potential for it in Humboldt Branch corridor. Its a relatively short stretch and is backed against a heavily used retail corridor. Lets face it, BT is no longer an option, time to start looking at CTA’s other options.

        2. Another way to deal with congestion is to discourage driving alone in the first place. There can be incentives like safe bicycling routes, good taxi coverage, frequent bus and train schedules, but disincentives, too, like a congestion charge for driving alone. (This is really a reply to your comment below but we’ve reached the thread level maximum.)

  2. Fantastic summary, Steven. I wanted to let you (and your readers) know that the giant photograph “map” of the rail & all 4 neighborhoods is still up at the YMCA but now it’s in the hall outside the gym. Sticky notes & dots are on hand so that neighbors & the public can continue to add comments and questions. People can also email bloomingdaletrail@tpl:disqus .org. Thanks for your comprehensive report!                                                           Bonnie Tawse, BT Charrette Coordinator

  3. @73638eb9ecc23fdd8d2215090f57a439:disqus ,  @7917128d4133957bbe874630336981af:disqus 

    It’s pretty sad that you’re both in agreement that we’ll never be able to afford another elevated structure. Do you actually think we’ll never build more rail transit again? I know it’s a pretty bleak picture today (teaparters, etc.), but I find it hard to believe as oil prices and congestion continue to rise that we won’t be looking to improve our transit systems.
    If this means rail, that gives us three options: subways, elevated, and street-level rail. Elevated is cheaper than subway and has the major benefit of being grade-separated. Seems at least feasible to me. Disagree?

    1. Elevated rail is certainly cheaper than a subway (shallow tunneling.. deep tunnel boring is about the same cost per mile save for stations), but given the EPA requirements, neighborhood studies, etc., you won’t see any elevated structures being built without 15-20 years of essentially waiting for NIMBYs to give up. Even a fully concrete structure will provoke NIMBYism at it’s finest.

      We really need to be thinking about street-running rail at this point. BRT is little more than a band-aid. Yes, construction costs are higher for LRV or other street running fixed guideway systems, but the CO2 emissions and cost-per-mile of rail are much cheaper when amortized over the longer life cycle that LRV has.

      1. We wouldn’t need BRT (or any of its cousins) if there were fewer cars on our local roads. Imagine if 50% of people made their trips by non-single occupancy vehicles (SOV). A bus wouldn’t have to wait for two light cycles. 

        1. You can have a fantasy of not wanting cars on the road, but that is just a poor excuse for a lack of ideas.

          1. Was someone saying they wanted cars off the road?

            I, too, believe that’s a fantasy, but I believe there are ways to reduce and eliminate congestion.

    2. Aaron, I did say that I see potential for elevated construction in the former Humboldt Branch corridor… that it could feasibly happen. The ROW is there, it aligns with a loud, busy retail corridor, new elevated structures are far quieter and I don’t see the people of Humboldt Park being as big of pricks to deal with as other Chicago neighborhoods.

      But when it comes to building additional lines throughout Chicago (Circle Line, North-Central Line, Gold Line), the options are either elevated grade (ala bloomingdale) or subway due to either the costs (elevated grade being the cheapest, or land purchase costs associated with elevated lines) or the density and community groups of the neighborhoods they would pass through. Andersonville residents would shit a brick if you told them a elevated line would be erected on Ashland… but tell them it is going up with the Metra line along Ravenswood and you wouldn’t hear a peep. Same goes for the Circle Line as it passes through Wicker Park and Noble Square… elevated = bitch fest… subway = acceptance.

        1. Yes… and yes it would be elevated, but it would only pass through an additional 3 residential blocks of Pilsen (a community that is not going to complain) the industrial south branch corridor, then immediately turn back with the Orange line. Elevated is the only thing that makes sense over this stretch, but this is a very small piece that goes through a low opposition area, that would be connecting two elevated lines.

          A very, very different scenario than running an elevated line down Ashland from the Kennedy to Lake Street.

          1. I disagree that Pilsen residents will not complain. Many Pilsen residents protested the changes from Blue to Pink, and the eventual abandonment of all Blue Line service to 54/Cermak. That was just a change in service. 

            This will be a change in their neighborhood that may cause homes to be razed. Pilsen is one of the more politically active neighborhoods I know about. 

        2. The Circle Line died years ago; any reference to it is simply silly humor. It is not needed; it never was needed; CTA came up with a half-baked idea of “elevated here, subway there, flyover with no connection to Metra there, etc.”.

          You probably weren’t at the original meetings, but it was like listening to a bunch of sheisters try and sell an ice maker to an Alaskan eskimo.

        3. Steven, you don’t live in New York City. Stop comparing this city to that city. Population densities in Chicago are nowhere near that of NYC, and thus a subway makes little sense.

    3. I hope we’ve learned a lesson to not *tear down* elevated infrastructure (except for highways, which can be converted to more useful and productive space). 

      I think that the 130th Red Line extension will happen, and it will be elevated. If it goes alongside an economic development plan, it will be a good investment in that community of Chicago. 

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