At Last, the Bloomingdale Looks Like a Trail

Beth White stands under a lighting arch on the Humboldt Boulevard Bridge. Photo: John Greenfield

In June, Steven Vance and I got a sneak peek at construction to build the Bloomingdale Trail, AKA The 606. On Tuesday, I went back up on the rail line for a tour with Beth White from the Trust for Public Land, which is managing the project, and saw that major progress has been made over the last six months. Work on bridges and utilities is largely complete, access ramps are in place, many blocks of railings have been installed, and most of the 2.7-mile route is paved.

Much of the eastern portion of the trail now has railings. Photo: John Greenfield

The $95 million multiuse trail and linear park was supposed to debut this fall but construction delays, caused by the long, cold winter, have postponed the opening date until June. The upside of the delay is that more of the landscaping for the path and its access parks will be completed by opening time than was originally planned.

Almost all of the rail line, except for locations currently accessed by heavy trucks, now sports a 14-foot-wide ribbon of concrete that will serve as the walking and biking surface. Mile markers have been embedded in the pavement, and two-foot-wide rubber surfaces will be added to the outside edges of the path to provide a soft surface for running — a similar configuration as the Lakefront Trail.

Rubber will be installed next to the mile markers. Photo: John Greenfield

At community meetings about the Bloomingdale, many attendees asked that there be separate paths for pedestrians and cyclists, in order to avoid the kind of conflicts that are common on the busier sections of the lakeside route. Separating the two different modes on the Lakefront Trail has been the most requested improvement during the North Lake Shore Drive redesign process. The Active Transportation Alliance recently launched a petition calling for separate paths by the lake.

White told me it wasn’t physically possible to build two different paths on the rail line, since the right-of-way averages just 30 feet wide. “If we’d had separate trails, there would have been no green space.” However, the Bloomingdale path undulates in some places, and dips down in others, which may help calm bike traffic. The access ramps for the trail will also feature wheelchair accessible stiles at the trail level and bollards at the bottom, which will discourage cyclists from zooming down the inclines and into the street.

The trail undulates and dips, which will help calm bike traffic. Photo: John Greenfield

The city’s Bicycling Ambassadors and other workers will be doing outreach to trail users to promote safe, courteous riding, White said. “You’re going to need to share space with people in order to make this work. The nice thing is that if issues arise with people riding too fast, we can always make adjustments to the trail.”

Work on the trail’s 38 bridges is coming to a close. Two weekends ago, workers installed a giant steel arch on the rail line’s Milwaukee bridge. The arch is 98 feet long, 35 feet tall and weights 55,000 pounds, White said. The original bridge decking has been removed, and the span has been elevated by three feet. After suspension wires are installed, the bridge decking will be re-poured, and the street pillars that currently support the bridge will be removed. “Not only will we have a beautiful bridge, but by eliminating the piers, we’ll be making the street safer,” she said.

The Milwaukee Bridge arch. Photo: Trust for Public Land

In April, the rail line’s bridge at Ashland – the trail’s eastern terminus — was taken down and transported a mile west to Western, where it was reinstalled. That bridge will also be pillar-free, White said.

After ascending to the trail from Julia de Burgos Park, located between Whipple and Albany, we walked east to Kimball, where the right-of-way is 120 feet wide, making it the trail’s broadest section. Formerly train cars were stored at this spot. This area will get a small playground, a grove of shade trees, and a short, wheelchair–accessible nature path, separate from the main trail.

An access ramp. Photo: John Greenfiled

Most electrical and plumbing lines have been installed by now, White said. Workers will put in light fixtures and water fountains this winter. Excavation to create the dips in the trail, which also allow for shorter access ramps, has exposed interesting striation in the concrete walls of the old railroad embankment. The walls, which are nine feet thick at street level, will remain in their rough state to remind users of the trail’s history, White said. “One of our staffers pointed out, you wouldn’t put spackle on the Coliseum.”

At the Lawndale bridge, by the McCormick Tribune YMCA, workers were installing new decking. Just west of the bridge, at the trail’s western terminus, there’s now a mound of dirt that will be transformed into an observatory that will be accessed via a spiral path. From the top of the mound — ten feet above the rest of the trail — visitors will be able to watch train movements on an adjacent north-south rail line, and view the heavens through telescopes.

Workers install decking on the Lawndale Bridge. Yellow wall is Magid Glove factory. Photo: John Greenfield

To the west of the YMCA stands the shuttered Magid Glove factory, which the Trust for Public Land recently purchased in order to create the trail’s sixth ground-level access park. That green space will open roughly a year and a half after the main trail.

After we turned around and headed east again, we came to the Humboldt Boulevard bridge, which will have bleacher-like seating so that visitors can rest and gaze out at the leafy thoroughfare. While most of the trail will get “cobra-head” lampposts, illumination on the bridge will be provided by lights on arches over the trail. One of these has already been installed.

The Western Bridge. The Milwaukee Bridge arch is visible behind it. Photo: John Greenfield

At Western, the installation of bridge decking is not yet finished so we were forced to turn around, but the Milwaukee bridge arches are visible two blocks to the east. Much progress has been made on the trail over the past few months, and it will be exciting to see how it develops between now and the grand opening.

See more photos of the trail here. 

  • jimsey

    now if only we could get some improvement to the lack of sidewalk just south of the new Milwaukee Bridge (NMFF Construction, i think). Currently, the warning that the sidewalk is closed is posted at that bridge, leaving pedestrians to cross Milwaukee mid-block and with a column dangerously blocking everyone’s view

  • Lisa Curcio

    This is an exciting addition to the area. I hope my fellow cyclists will respect the other users of the path so that all can enjoy the amenities. And thanks for showing us the progress.

  • Sure thing, it’s always fun to do these kind of excursions.

  • I know what you’re talking about. I’ll look into this very soon.

  • Shlabotnik

    Thanks for sharing these pictures, though I must say I am disappointed by the drab concrete which looks more like a runway than an inviting path. Judging by some of the pictures the path looks like it almost belongs to a penitentiary courtyard.

    Why is it that in the U.S. sidewalks and paths are always the same monotonous poured concrete? In cities I’ve visited in Europe and Latin America there seems to be much higher quality materials and effort used in the design of the public way. Are we just too cheap? Do we not consider these things? Do we just not care?

  • jimsey

    thanks, I already called 311 over two weeks ago. I know you’re more attune to the rules regarding this, but this situation seems wrong and is very dangerous.

  • JacobEPeters

    I called 311 about this too, very surprised it has gone unaddressed for so long.

  • Jim Angrabright

    Well, cobblestones would certainly slow down the bikers.

  • Social_werkk

    I hope Divvy will increase their presence. If not, I’m buying a bike!

  • jimsey

    sometimes i feel like if you make a call to 311 about something that’s not a common issue (trash, streetlight, etc.) they don’t know where to file it and it gets lost.

  • High_n_Dry

    Perhaps community groups could add something like “art inspired crosswalks” in sections where it is appropriate.

  • This “calm bike traffic” concept really needs to be more fleshed out and defined. If by “calm”, they mean people aren’t sprinting at 35 MPH, then I can get on board with that proposal. But if by “calm”, we’re planning to ostracize those pedaling faster than 10 MPH, that is a huge problem. Though bike riders are sometimes called “rolling pedestrians”, bikes and peds are not the same. If a decent number of peds are expected to be using the trail, space must to be delineated between bikes and peds to avoid “conflicts“, even if just paint. It sounds like at its narrowest point, there’s at least space for a bikeway to be 9′-10′ and a walkway of 4′-6′. In the wider section, might as well go with two completely separate paths.

  • Fred

    I never contact 311 without also contacting my Alderman. Never hurts to complaint to multiple places.

  • ThisManIsRight

    were you able to snap a photo of the milwaukee bridge arches from trail level? i hope it looks better from up there than how it appears from the photos we’ve seen from the street.

  • T.G. Crewe

    This will be a nice addition to the area but nothing compares to how neat it was before they sanitized it.

  • High_n_Dry

    More of an elevated park than a bike path? It may be useful to get a mile or so if time is not of a concern but not as quick as surface streets. Though it will provide a nice alternative to always riding with traffic, for those that live nearby.

  • C Monroe

    Looks great hopefully the plants and trees grow back. Curious though, how long before the tracks are put back down? I know the thirty or so years of rails to trails movement it hasn’t happened but anyone guess when if it might happen?

  • Considering that SBChi has run several stories about proposed developments being close to or directly accessing the trail itself and how having a car-free area to ride can help people consider biking more, it’s apparent that at least some people expect the Trail to serve a transportation function of some sort, not just be a nice place to meander on a Sunday afternoon. That means that if it really has been developed to be mostly elevated park vs. functional bike path with park elements, then a great opportunity has been muted. The trail is a stone’s throw from the Clybourn Metra station and right next to a proposed station for the Ashland BRT line if CTA ever convinces people to let it get done. Those both present outstanding opportunities for commuters to combine modes. It also passes several schools where parents might be a little more inclined to let their kids ride to on the trail. Even kids can actually ride pretty fast. Like I said, I don’t expect that people would really tolerate pelotons of racers gunning through at top speeds. But if people riding comfortable speeds are “causing problems”, then the real problem is the design.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    And then what happens if the design is afail for pedestrians? More money?

    If speedy bikers, skate boarders and skaters turn it into a speed track making it difficult for walkers and runners to use, you’re back to the same issues as the lake front trail. I’m concerned about the ramps especially as the peds on the sidewalk leading up to the park and on the street sidewalk may get bumped around if riders take the ramps down too fast. I guess time will tell.

  • Brian

    I’ve read so many comments online from people upset with the bridge design. Seems quite polarizing for some reason, perhaps because it’s not what people were expecting. Many seem to be upset it doesn’t match the early renderings 100%. These early images were an artist’s representation. I think the form is pretty dramatic and when it’s complete with tension wires, removal of temporary bracing, and painting, should look pretty sharp.

  • Brian

    I think about as much thought as you can put into a plan has been put into the plan for this trail! I’m sure it will require some give and take up there if it becomes as popular as many predict, with the space being as narrow as it is at points. I fully expect to be able to bike at a moderate clip…but anticipate times being stuck behind groups walking, slow bikers, joggers, etc., requiring some patience. But I’m already looking forward to trips to Aldi without having to go through a single traffic light!

  • Brian

    I can’t really tell from pictures, but it seems beautiful trails like La Promenade Plantee in France are concrete as well. But, similarly, I think the intent is that nature will sprout up all around the Bloomingdale Trail over the years, creating quite a beautiful path. Nature, as well as the views, will be what people will focus on in the years to come. It seems like it will look somewhat sterile at first, however. I think a nice smooth-rolling concrete surface sounds wonderful and sturdy, albeit plain at first. One negative observation in my eyes is what I’ve been calling the Supermax fencing they’re putting up just west of Damen to protect the trailtop condos from vandals/thieves. They requested higher security, taller fences. A decision that seems to cut them off from the future majesty of the trail.

  • Brian

    Looks like some enjoyed it while in the process of sanitization:

  • T.G. Crewe

    excellent work

  • In the wider parts there are multiple paths.

  • Jeff

    It’s so straight and incredibly boring. I’ve been on similar paths and at least they have a nice curving flow… even in tight spaces. Disappointed in this design, it seems very sterile. :(

  • forensicgarlic

    I wouldn’t call the lake front trail “difficult for walkers and runners to use” as someone who uses it for walking, running, and biking.

  • Fred

    I can’t imagine hoards of speeding spandex-clad bikers are going to be an issue on this trail. It’s only 2.7mi long. At 20mph, that’s ~8 minutes of riding. No one who is riding for exercise is only riding for 8 minutes. The fastest bikers on this trail are likely to be commuters.

  • Fred

    Some rail->trail conversions are actually built on “rail-banked” land, meaning the ROW for future use as rail again is maintained. This has only happened once in the US in Clarence, PA and the Snow Shoe Trail. I believe the 606ingdale was outright sold so the railroad has no future claim to it whatsoever.

  • C Monroe

    Thank you, was curious about that.

  • It doesn’t even feel like the original renderings, though. It feels hard and square-edged and blatant, where it was rendered to look swoopingly organic.

  • Brian

    Again, they were purely artists’ concepts. When you get bridge engineers involved, you get something different. Vive la differnence! I enjoy the older artists’ renderings of the trail…even if the forests and fencing and bridges, etc. are all different in reality. They served their purpose to get the ideas rolling. So glad the concept is a reality!

  • Brian

    Thanks for the photo tour. Any idea how those metal grate surfaces (on ramps, etc.) perform when wet for cyclists? I’m curious.

  • I’m not sure whether the ramps will be filled in with concrete or not — I’ll ask.

  • bob

    Sounds like someone needs to move to the suburbs if screaming around on 2 wheels is that important (which I understand). As a runner and cyclist, this is one of the main reasons I’m not in the city. Plenty of trails with all the space in the world out here. I know, sorry, I probably made some people throw up in their mouth a little. Everyone has priorities – one of mine happens to be open trails. For a trail so short, what serious cyclists are gonna be on it anyways?

  • ardecila

    Not happy about the idea to leave the concrete walls “rough”. It’s one thing to leave a ruin untouched, but it’s another thing to spend months sandblasting and waterproofing that ruin only to run out of money before doing the final patch work. Many of the viaducts have an incongruous mix of patched sections, exposed rebar (epoxy-coated), etc.

  • Not really, go reread. I specifically said in my comment that people out for a time trial probably would be out of place on that trail. However, people biking for transportation don’t want or need to be unnecessarily hindered either. “Casual” riders can move at a pretty good clip and one that many pedestrians typically find to be “surprising” or even “terrifying”. Even when they aren’t going that fast to begin with. This project provides a stop-free riding experience that also creates a far superior east-west link in that area of the city. It will attract bicyclists. It will “cause problems” and draw complaints if not delineated in the areas that don’t have separate pathways.

  • According to TPL, the ramps and bridges will have a concrete surface, like the rest of the path.

  • CCCYeah

    This was an old railway…the design was already there and it is physically impossible to create curves on this path. Its at roof level so they would literally need to tear down surrounding buildings. It looks great and is such an effective way of making something unused, usable again!

  • Anne A

    Yes, it was purchased outright.

  • Anne A

    Construction was delayed by last winter’s extreme weather, continuing into spring. Landscaping is supposed to be completed in spring 2015.