Englewood Line Trail Could Create Recreation and Job Opportunities for Residents

The abandoned railroad embankment. Photo: Englewood Line
The abandoned railroad embankment. Photo: Englewood Line

In 1909, American architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham and his colleague Edward H. Bennett published the Plan of Chicago, a transportation-based blueprint for urban growth in the metropolis whose motto “Urbs in Horto” means “City in a Garden.” Appropriately, the plan placed a special emphasis on the preservation and expansion of Chicago’s parks, particularly along the lakefront. Fast forward to more than a century later to last March, when the city released its Building on Burnham plan, a strategy to expand and invest in the park system.

Building on Burnham focuses on four key areas: the lakefront, the Chicago River, natural preservation, and recreational assets and programming. So far, the city has been diligently moving its plan forward with projects such as the repaving of the Lakefront Trail and the expansion of the Chicago Riverwalk. Continuing with Burnham’s vision to create a network of interconnected parks, the city is looking to build more rail-to-trails like the Bloomindale Trail, aka The 606.

Last year Mayor Emanuel announced plans to convert abandoned railroad right-of-way on the Southwest Side to a biking and walking route called The Paseo. The four-mile long path will connect the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods.

Another rail-to-trail in the works is the Englewood Line Nature Trail, a proposed two-mile elevated greenway located in the South Side community of the same name. The path would run along an unused rail embankment between 58th and 59th streets from Hoyne to Wallace avenues.

Englewood is a predominately African-American neighborhood that was once home to a bustling commercial district. However, due to decades of disinvestment and a declining population, the under-resourced community was left with many abandoned buildings and vacant lots. Residents say the embankment is currently used for criminal activities. If the rail-to-trail were built, it could bring in more community investment and improve the quality-of-life for many residents.

The Englewood Line was originally part of the New Englewood Remaking America (ERA) Community Vision Plan in 2009. Openlands, an open-space preservation nonprofit, and the landscape architecture firm Hitchcock Design Group created a preliminary design thanks to a $150,000 grant from the Exelon Foundation, according to Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The design includes a park along the embankment and an outdoor festival plaza. The trail would also have the potential to connect parks, urban farms, and neighborhood landmarks.

In a 2016 Health Impact Assessment report, the planner noted that the Englewood Line would help increase physical activity among residents and encourage them to be out in their community. Funding for the project could come from a combination of public money and private donations.

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Preliminary plans call for a “festival plaza and market” next to the Englewood Line. Image: Hitchcock Design Group

Currently, the Englewood Line is part of Chicago’s Green Healthy Neighborhoods (GHN) Plan, a ten-to-20 year strategy to improve and maximize the use of vacant land and other local resources in Englewood, West Englewood, Washington Park, and other neighboring communities on the South Side. Last year, the city was awarded a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its Growing Chicago urban farming initiative. The city wants to expand urban farming opportunities in Englewood and is currently acquiring vacant lots near the Englewood Line for this purpose.

The Department of Planning and Development is spearheading the trail conversion and is collaborating with urban planning firm Teska Associates to management the project. Along with Grow Greater Englewood and the Active Transportation Alliance, they’ve been seeking input from local residents and organizations on their visions for the trail.

“It’s [the community’s] project so at the end of the day, if it’s going to be used, then the community needs to do the designing,” Scott Goldstein of Teska told DNAInfo at a community meeting held last year.

However, not all community members are happy about the trail proposal. In the wake of the Bloomingdale Trail opening, which has helped fuel a real estate boom in the surrounding neighborhoods, proposals for new greenways in lower-income neighborhoods can raise concerns about rising housing costs and the displacement of longtime residents.

The Englewood Railway Coalition was formed in 2011 to help local homeowners hold off on buyouts from Norfolk Southern, which owns the right-of-way the city wants to acquire for the trail. In 2013, Chicago Plan Commission approved a deal giving Norfolk Southern land owned by the city to expand its Englewood rail yard in exchange for the unused rail embankment for the trail. The land acquisition process is still ongoing and the current status of the deal remains unclear.This may slow down the Englewood Line development process. If the land swap goes through, it would add 84 acres to land Norfolk already owns in the region, and potentially create 400 jobs at the expanded rail yard.

According to Crain’s, the unemployment rate in Englewood is 36.4 percent. After decades of disinvestment, we’re starting to see new businesses opening in the community. Last fall Whole Foods opened up a new store in the neighborhood, creating 200 jobs, and Starbucks recently opened a cafe. The Englewood Line could help continue this trend of job creation. Participants in the city’s GreenCorps horticulture job training program will be hired to help build the trail, starting with the construction of an access point this year. And there’s potential for small businesses like bike shops and restaurants to open up along the trail, as has been the case with the Bloomingdale.

While there are plenty of issues to be ironed out before the Englewood Line becomes a reality, hopefully its development will be part of a continuing trend towards investments in the neighborhood that will benefit the current residents.

  • Jacob Wilson

    It’s so sad to see people fight against these projects because of gentrification concerns but I can totally see there concerns and why they do it. Housing costs in this country’s cities have become so precarious that often it’s a choice of preserving something developers won’t want rather than take the investment.

    I really think until we stop letting housing be at the whims of the all-holy ‘market’ any kind of infrastructure improvement like this will be looked at with skepticism by longtime residents, and rightly so.

  • kastigar

    Gentrification isn’t the only obstacle to this kind of improvement. Building a walking/biking path along the abandoned Weber Spur trail has been in the works for several years now, in the 39th Ward on the northwest side of Chicago.

    Housing is already being proposed along the route:
    http://www.sauganash.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Bryn-Mawr_Kostner_map.pdf

    Recently Lincolnwood has extended construction along the Weber Spur, north of Devon Avenue, will the Chicago section south of Devon is walled off and neglected.

    Unless the city moves on this project the land may eventually be sold by the Union Pacific to private property developers and the opportunity for construction will be lost. A very small section was already lost with the construction of two homes on the south side of Bryn Mawr Avenue, by Kostner.

  • neroden

    Fighting against gentrification is, unfortunately, completely nuts. It’s counterproductive. I see why people do it but it’s still stupid. Gentrification means “Your neighborhood is more popular and more people want to live there” — the only way to fight it is to make your neighborhood as much of a hellhole as possible, which is bad for everyone.

    Now, fighting against replacing your homes with a freight railway yard, *that* makes a lot more sense. Unfortunately they’ve lost; time to move on.

  • neroden

    This is part of the former Pennsylvania Railroad belt line around Chicago and part of their original 19th century extremely circuitous route into Union Station from the northwest. Any railroad purpose it once had is now better served by other routes. I hope it can be made into a linear park ASAP.

  • eveee

    Doesn’t gentrification mean your housing value went up? That seems like a prescription for adding some personal wealth, not a negative.

  • rohmen

    The fact that building a park or mixed-use trail even fuels gentrification at all is to me a signal of improper resource distribution in the first place.

    If parks and trails were a priority throughout the city, and not just something that occurs in hip/trendy neighborhoods or areas the city feels could be made more hip/trendy, building a park wouldn’t lead to gentrification in the first place.

    The solution to affordable housing isn’t to keep the city underserved, it’s to make sure neighborhoods aren’t lacking services to begin with.

  • rohmen

    It’s great in theory when your place goes from being worth $250k to over $500k in a couple of years (which is what some Logan Square families have seen), but property taxes on a $500k valued place can be brutal, and it’s a valid concern when people complain they’re being pushed out because their homes are doubling and tripling in value.

  • Anne A

    If you’re poor (or on a fixed income) and and can just afford what you’ve got, gentrification may not be a good thing. If you own a property and property taxes go up to a level you can’t afford, that’s a problem. It’s happened to long-time residents in Lincoln Park, Bucktown, Logan Square and other neighborhoods.

    If your property is towards the low end of the price range for the city and you sell because you can’t afford the property taxes anymore, your only alternative may be moving to a place that’s more distant and car-centric, increasing your transportation costs.

  • eveee

    Yes, that’s all true. All I am saying is that compared to the possibility of ever decreasing home values and homes underwater on loans, increasing home values are a plus.

  • eveee

    You are witnessing what happened in California that spurred Jarvis Gann. Taxes go up with valuation. Real estate is a mess in so many ways. If the value goes up, you are almost forced to move, just because the economic message is sell. That’s not how we feel about our homes.

    But it’s not just poor people or middle class kicked out by increasing home values. Look at San Jose. Mean housing price over a million. Anyone living in San Jose knows if they leave, they may never return.

    It is good to sell with a good property value. But sometimes we don’t want to move. It’s a disruption in our lives.

  • But that assumes that someone owns the home. Some of them do, but quite a number of them are renting and as renters, the price increase hits them negatively.

  • Transportation costs can be easier to control, though.

  • planetshwoop

    The 606 is not the only template for what can happen when a rail-trail is constructed in a neighborhood. It can be a positive for residents without the negative effects of gentrification. Locally, I think the Sauganash trail (“Marge’s Mile”) is an example of that, and while I’m not as familiar, I think the Major Taylor trail is another. Home prices didn’t explode nearby, and few have been pushed out.

    The 606 is a poor template of what to expect to home values when you build a trail — there is a spectrum of outcomes we can look for

    The most important part of a trail (for me) is it’s connections to other stuff: the neighborhood, retail, the street network. (Mathmatically, this is described by Metcalfe’s Law.) This is partially why the Sauganash trail is not much — it connects to almost nothing, there is no retail nearby right now, and until Lincolnwood recently built there extension, it went from nowhere to nowhere. So any effects on property taxes were minimal; it was a great place to jog if you lived in the neighborhood.

  • Kevin M

    Thanks for the background context. Just one thing–wouldn’t the PRR have built this route to reach Union Station from the *Northeast* rather than the *Northwest*?

  • Jeff Gio

    “In the wake of the Bloomingdale Trail opening, which has helped fuel a real estate boom in the surrounding neighborhoods”. What is the causal evidence for this? There is certainly a correlation but the absurd housing crisis in Logan Square is not due to a new park.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It’s not mere coincidence that every available lot next to the Bloomingdale Trail is being developed with upscale housing.

  • eveee

    Thats true. Thats probably a pure negative. Renters get nothing out of increased real estate prices.

  • eveee

    Yes, thats what happens. It hurts because homes are not just investments, its where people have their connections to other people.
    I’m just saying having property under water on a loan is worse.

  • Anne A

    The neighborhoods around Bloomingdale, Sauganash and Major Taylor Trails are rather different from each other. Length of each trail and proximity to retail and other amenities makes a difference, too.

  • Anne A

    In some situations.

  • Henry

    I believe the PRR once used the same route into Union Station as the current Milwaukee District trains, which approach the station from the Northwest. The PRR joined them in the vicinity of the (now Union Pacific) rail yards west of Western Ave, coming up from the south.

    In a broader sense, yes, the trains did come from the Northeast of the *United States*.

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