A Chicago Park Learns from New York’s High Line

What the Bloomingdale Trail and Other Emerging Urban Parks Are Teaching Us About the Future of Public Space

Story by David Lepeska

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On a bitterly cold January night, a select crowd of developers, financiers, city officials and supporters of the arts gathered at The Casino, a swank private club in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. As smartly dressed servers delivered wine, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, Deputy Mayor Steve Koch stepped to the podium and detailed a plan to turn an unused, 2.7-mile elevated rail line slashing across the city’s North Side into a great green ribbon of public space.

“This will transform the city,” Koch said, referring to the Bloomingdale Trail. “It will make it a fundamentally different place. A lot of people are familiar with the High Line — this is a concept far beyond that truly transformative project.”

Mention the High Line, a mile-long elevated park on the West Side of Manhattan, to anyone remotely interested in planning or public space, and you’ll likely be inundated with superlatives and barely concealed envy. Not yet four years old, it is already New York City’s second-most popular attraction, pulling in nearly 4.5 million visitors in 2012, and ranks among the most influential public works projects of the past half-century, altering our thinking about public space and urban revival.

“Someone will call you up and say, ‘I want to see the city,’” Koch predicted. “_This_ is where you’ll go; this is the way you’ll do it. And I think people are going to come from all over the globe.”

“This is the High Line on steroids,” Koch continued, relaying how his boss, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, vowed to complete the Bloomingdale in his first term. “I think he was captured by this extraordinary vision. This was a chance to create this ribbon of green that transforms our industrial legacy, a chance to take that and bring it into the 21st century as this incredible urban green space.”

It’s also a chance to bring in the other kind of green. The High Line has reportedly spurred more than $2 billion in area investment. Though it cost the city $112 million, the park is expected to bring in an estimated $900 million in additional tax revenues over two decades. It’s only a slight stretch to say the High Line is to Manhattan’s West Side what Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum is to Bilbao.

The Bloomingdale Trail runs through four gentrifying neighborhoods. Credit: Bart Shore

Now, municipal officials everywhere have taken to staring wide-eyed at their own hunk of decaying infrastructure and seeing, in its stead, a dazzling new elevated park, pulsing with happy visitors and filling city coffers. “It’s sort of taken on a magical quality,” said Adrian Benepe, the New York City parks commissioner during the High Line’s construction and now a senior vice president at the Trust for Public Land, a green space advocacy organization

Wuppertal, Germany, hopes to turn an old railway — including its famous LEGO Bridge — into a 10-mile cycle path to spark renewal in a town that’s seen better days. Rotterdam officials are looking to transform an old elevated train track downtown into a park that will use industrial waste to warm nearby buildings. In Shoreditch, a district in East London, officials may build an elevated park atop the Braithwaite Viaduct, one of the oldest railway structures in the world. Back in the states, officials in St. Louis and Philadelphia have similar visions for aging elevated viaducts in their respective downtowns.

And New York, being New York, likes to do everything twice (names, sports teams, weekend brunch). Funded by a $467,000 grant from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Trust for Public Land is studying a project to remake a 3.5-mile stretch of abandoned elevated railway into the QueensWay, a greenbelt running from Rego Park to Ozone Park, in Queens.

Parks are suddenly big business. But might the High Line be too seductive? It’s not hard to imagine revitalization-hungry officials around the world spending as much as a billion dollars in the coming years aping the crown jewel of 21st-century New York, and largely failing.

What may save the Second City — literally second, in this case — are its embrace of transportation over destination and its reliance on non-municipal funding. Despite the soaring language of city officials, Chicago’s modest approach may set the standard for High Line plagiarists to come.

“It’s really going to be a neighborhood asset rather than a signature downtown attraction,” said Will Rogers, president and CEO of the Trust for Public Land, which has been working on the Bloomingdale for nearly a decade. “The High Line really reshaped the whole Meatpacking District. The Bloomingdale is going to provide parks and green space for neighborhoods that desperately need it, and bicycle access for people going downtown. It’s a different kind of investment.”

Hyde Park to High Line

The world’s first urban park may have been the Alameda de Hércules, a quarter-mile public promenade built in 1574 in Seville, Spain, and still well trod today. Sixty years on, Great Britain’s King Charles I created Richmond Park and opened Hyde Park — previously a deer hunting reserve — to the London public, marking two of the first large, urban swaths of public green.

Two centuries later came the boom for great urban green spaces. With Central Park, begun in 1857, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux created that era’s High Line. Chicago, Buffalo, Vancouver, Boston and other cities soon built their own vast green reserves, often with help from Olmsted himself.

With the onset of the Great Depression and the arrival of the automobile, the vogue for city parks ended, particularly in denser cities of the East and Midwest. Planners soon gravitated toward the Frank Lloyd Wright ideal of suburban lots with backyards and cities designed around highways and the movement of traffic. Municipal budgets largely declined as urban crime rose in the 1960s and 1970s, and major park projects slid further down the agenda.

Today, with our 21st-century appreciation for dense, walkable cities, we’re coming full circle. Chicago has built that fantastic — and fantastically expensive — downtown centerpiece, Millennium Park. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Benepe have embarked on the city’s greatest park expansion in nearly a century, adding 700 new acres of parkland in the past decade and spending over $3 billion on renovation and construction.

A photo of the High Line before it was the High Line in 1934. Courtesy of Friends of the High Line, photographer unknown.

A sizable chunk of that went to the High Line, which upon its 2009 opening seemed to most a sui generis creation. In reality, it was the end result of a decades-long progression that started in Chicago. After an eight-year battle to turn a 61-mile network of unused railroad along the Windy City’s edge into walking trails, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton created the Illinois Prairie Path in 1971, launching the national rails-to-trails movement.

Within a couple decades, Chattanooga had converted its Walnut Street Bridge and Minneapolis its Stone Arch Bridge to pedestrian and bicycle use. Washington, D.C., Portland, Houston, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Boston soon followed. In 1993, Paris went one further, inaugurating the Promenade plantée, a 2.9-mile stretch of shops, paths and gardens built along the old Vincennes railway and the world’s first green belt on an elevated rail line.

“I Just Didn’t Expect Wildflowers”

“Parks are volatile places,” Jane Jacobs wrote half a century ago in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “They can be delightful features of city districts, and economic assets to their surroundings as well, but pitifully few are. They can grow more beloved and valuable with the years, but pitifully few show this staying power… There are dozens of dispirited city vacuums called parks, eaten around with decay, little used, unloved.”

Though nothing like the parks Jacobs knew, the High Line has from its inception been seen as something precious and in need of care. Joshua David, a freelance travel writer, met Robert Hammond, an entrepreneur, at the very first meeting organized by West Siders to discuss the future of the abandoned rail tracks, in August 1999. Within months, they were toasting the birth of their new organization, named Friends of the High Line, and making their first visit to that now-iconic stretch of elevated rail.

“I don’t know what I had expected,” Hammond writes in High Line, the duo’s detailed oral history of the park and an invaluable how-to guide for followers in their footsteps. “I just didn’t expect wildflowers. This was not a few blades of grass growing up through gravel. The wildflowers and plants had taken over. We had to wade through waist-high Queen Anne’s lace. It was another world, right in the middle of Manhattan.”

In their designs, landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations and design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro sought to retain that world, and largely succeeded. Their vision sparked millions of dollars in donations and other support from celebrities like Edward Norton and Manhattan media mogul Barry Diller, husband of fashion designer and High Line backer Diane von Furstenberg.

The High Line viewed from West 21st Street, looking South along 10th Avenue toward the Hudson River. Copyright © 2011 Iwan Baan

Once the High Line opened in June 2009, crowds strolled the boards, critics showered praise and property values along the park doubled within two years. Since the city rezoned the area in 2005 to encourage development, nearly 30 new building projects have accounted for more than $2 billion in private investment, adding some 12,000 jobs, 2,500 residential units, 1,000 hotel rooms and nearly half a million square feet of new office and gallery space, according to Friends of the High Line.

Aping the High Line, then, is not merely about sustainable reuse or new park construction. It’s about sparking investment and increasing a city’s ability to attract new residents.

“Cities have really become aware that they are competing with each other for the businesses and well-educated mobile citizens that make cities work,” said Rogers of TPL. “These people get to choose where they want to live, and they tend to choose green, walkable cities with great neighborhoods, great parks, good cultural institutions. I think the reason cities are investing in these opportunities is that they are really trying to position themselves to attract these people.”

But far more than the perfectly positioned High Line, the Bloomingdale will test this theory.

Chicago’s Next Great Public Space

On a blustery, overcast January afternoon, Steven Vance, a cycling advocate and writer at Streetsblog Chicago, shimmied on top of a short stone wall at Julia de Burgos Park in Logan Square and clambered up to the train tracks. As with the High Line before it was remade, North Siders have been sneaking onto the Bloomingdale (which, at 16 feet high as opposed to the High Line’s 30, allows for easier trespassing) for years, using it as walkway, romantic aerie and summer nightlife spot.

Wildflowers like those that made Hammond swoon were rare, but the tracks were overrun with long grasses. More than a dozen full-grown trees lined the edge of the trail. Not surprisingly, the tracks were strewn with bits of trash and the occasional beer can.

Strolling east, the vantage was akin to riding on the third level of a triple-decker bus floating slowly, and without interruption, through the neighborhood: Overlooking cars zipping up and down broad, stately Humboldt Boulevard, children playing outside a school near California Avenue, half a dozen locals chatting while dodging each other’s pets in the dog run at Churchill Field Park.

That strong link to the community has been key since the park and trail idea emerged in a 1997 city planning document. Five years later, and two years after the last freight cars chugged down the tracks, the city began planning for a multiuse trail linking the neighborhoods of Bucktown, Wicker Park, Logan Square and Humboldt Park. For the most part, these are gentrified North Side districts, home to thousands of youngish, well-educated singles and families and filled with boutique shopping outlets, stylish cafes, lively bars and even a few Michelin-starred restaurants.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts and celebrity chef Rick Bayless live in multi-million dollar homes near the trail in Bucktown and Wicker Park, respectively. The real estate website Redfin recently ranked Logan Square as the eighth hottest neighborhood in America, citing a 94 percent increase in home sales in 2012. Humboldt Park has long been under-developed but has begun to see signs of gentrification. Koch credits the Bloomingdale for some of the recent uptick. “The area has already had disproportionate growth because people are conscious of what’s coming,” he said.

When it’s finished, the trail will connect the ‘L’ train’s Blue Line, which runs from downtown to O’Hare International Airport, to two Metra commuter rail lines, and link green, expansive Humboldt Park to points east. As designed by the New York- and Cambridge, Mass.-based firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, five anchor parks will provide green space and access. The trail itself will include a concrete bike path, a softer jogging and walking path and an array of flora-heavy areas with benches and art installations.

Matthew Urbanski, a partner at MVVA and one of the lead designers, explained his firm’s approach to the project as “a creative editing of the structure, removing pieces where it expedites connection.” The local response has generally been positive. “It could be Chicago’s next great public space,” wrote Blair Kamin, architecture critic at the Chicago Tribune.

The evolution of the Bloomingdale has been a public affair. Because it’s meant to link neighborhoods, and lacked private capital, the former sought, and found, broad community engagement.

Since 2008, the city, the Trust for Public Land and Friends of the Bloomingdale have organized dozens of neighborhood input meetings. In the course of those meetings, a clear desire for better transportation connections — as well as park space — emerged.

Project planners envisioned the trail as serving transportation needs and, in doing so, became eligible for federal funding. Enter $39 million in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement funds, mostly from the federal government, with a small amount from the state. The funding stipulates the new park serve as a transportation artery.

This means the trail will be used very differently than the High Line. Visitor surveys in New York show that people generally do not use that park to go from point A to point B, and that more than half come to the West Side expressly to visit the High Line. Cycling on its landscaped paths isn’t allowed. In contrast, the Bloomingdale is poised to attract daily commuters, particularly bikers.

“The High Line is more of a museum-style walking path, more of a tourist spot,” Vance said as he looked down over Damen Avenue. “I think comparisons between the two are really weak. The Bloomingdale might raise some property values, but it’s not going to make all the vacant lots disappear. And that’s fine. This provides an asset these neighborhoods have needed, and a safe route to walk and bike.”

Beth White, head of the Chicago office of the Trust for Public Land and largely in charge of the effort to make Bloomingdale a reality, sees the High Line as an escape or secret garden, while the Bloomingdale is about connections. The park’s still-gestating second phase would connect the increasingly high-end western neighborhoods to ritzier lakefront areas via a quarter-mile extension to the east, beyond the Kennedy Expressway and across the Chicago River.

“The viaduct has for a long time been a divider between these neighborhoods,” White said. “The trail is going to connect them with five great little parks, add a bicycle system, and later link to the river and trails along the lakefront. For us that’s a very powerful thing, because it’s also an alternative transportation route that’s going to get people to work, to their friends, wherever they need to go.”

“We Don’t Want a Mercedes in Philadelphia”

The Bloomingdale will likely go down as the most ambitious park project of the Emanuel era, a symbol of the city’s shift away from the redeveloped lakefront — the legacy of preceding mayor Richard M. Daley — and toward its interior, or “backyard,” as the current mayor calls it.

Interestingly, Millennium Park and the High Line have much more in common than either does with the Bloomingdale Trail. In addition to their prominent, high-traffic locations, they also share great ambitions, powerful backers, big-name designers and eyebrow-raising price tags. Perhaps most telling, their respective cities picked up most of the tab. Chicago paid $270 million of Millennium’s $475 million construction cost; New York paid $112 million of the $152 million cost for the High Line’s first two phases.

The Bloomingdale, meanwhile, is estimated at $91 million, or about $35 million per mile — less than a fourth the per-mile cost of its Manhattan cousin. To the $39 million in air quality funding, corporations like Boeing and Exelon have added $12 million in donations. The city has committed only $2 million to the project, an amount that may reflect the state of Chicago’s finances more than it does the mayor’s support.

Chicago is preparing to close dozens of schools to help address a possible $1 billion deficit next year, while also dealing with a spike in murders and a balloon pension payment that starts in a few years. Spending tens of millions on a major park project right now might trouble Chicagoans, but the Bloomingdale, and the city’s minor contribution, have sparked little dissent.

“The city doesn’t have that much money right now,” Koch said. “I think it’s sort of becoming more and more a phenomenon for major parks of this nature to heavily rely on private contributions. If we had to wait for the city to put together the funding, I don’t know when, if ever, this park would get built.”

Aiming to build elevated parks of their own, other cities that lack Manhattan’s tourists and millionaires are investigating Chicago’s approach. Most have come to understand that creating a distinctly local park, adapted to its own budget and the needs of residents, is crucial. In Philadelphia, a group of advocates and officials have been working to highlight the potential of the Reading Viaduct, a bifurcated, three-mile partially elevated rail spur.

In Philadelphia, the Reading Viaduct is being eyed for transformation into a park. Credit: Leah Murphy

The Viaduct, abandoned since 1984 and today overrun with wildflowers and waist-high grass, runs through post-industrial neighborhoods, including Callowhill and Chinatown, just north of the city center. Paul Levy is executive director of Center City District, a non-profit that works to make downtown Philadelphia more competitive and more attractive to businesses. He said the line cuts through an area in which nearly a third of the land is vacant or undeveloped, and believes a makeover could spark revitalization.

Viaduct Greene, another local advocacy non-profit, relishes the possibilities of the 2.2-mile City Branch of the viaduct. That section diverges west and mostly runs 20-30 feet below street level, passing alongside institutions like the Rodin Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art and terminating at Fairmount Park. One section feels like a cobblestoned corner of London, another an Iowa wheat field, a third an overgrown trail cutting through a Western Pennsylvania forest.

“This is by no means the High Line neighborhood,” Levy said. Plans for his $8 million, proof-of-concept first phase, on the Reading Viaduct’s quarter-mile SEPTA spur — named after its owner, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority — detail a simple, leafy green space with walking and sitting areas and three access points. “People here tell me, ‘we don’t want a Mercedes in Philadelphia,” Levy said. “We want something with industrial character that speaks to the history of the area.”

Plans for the St Louis Trestle, a 1.5-mile abandoned steel trestle along the Mississippi River, are similarly adapted to their locale. Running partly through an active industrial riverfront and partly through a residential area, the proposed linear park would offer a way to bike or walk through the city, connecting to an existing system of trails and bikeways while leaving the surrounding industry largely intact. “I tell people this is not Manhattan, this is not the High Line,” said Todd Antoine, deputy director for planning at Great Rivers Greenway, a local non-profit working on the project.

Antoine created an advocacy organization, Friends of the Trestle, gained the support of Mayor Francis Slay and put together a preliminary design. But he is moving forward slowly, looking to finish the first phase by 2017 and the entire park in about a decade.

Nailing Down a Model

Even a park with industrial character doesn’t come cheap. The Reading Viaduct has not presented a total construction estimate, but extrapolating the SEPTA spur estimate across the entire structure brings the cost close to nine figures. The Trestle is expected to cost $60 million.

As for the Bloomingdale, White expects to generate the remaining $38 million from corporate and private donors. That’s the same total Friends of the High Line generated to cover construction of their park’s first phase. But of course the Bloomingdale lacks the glitzy location and, thus far, the kindness of nearby millionaires.

The Trestle in St. Louis could eventually be a 1.5-mile greenway along the Mississippi River. Credit: Great Rivers Greenway

Adding to the challenge is the cost of long-term maintenance, which is not figured into upfront cost calculations and often becomes the greatest challenge. “Nowadays it’s relatively easy to raise funds to build a park, even though those funds are often considerable,” said Urbanski of MVVA. “What’s not easy is generating the funding to maintain it for the rest of its life.”

Consider the tale of La Alameda. In the late 18th century, the Seville promenade welcomed the city’s wealthy to fine shops and elegant theaters. But by the middle of the 20th it had fallen into disrepair, and soon became one of the city’s seedier areas, known for prostitutes and drug addicts.

Over the past decade the Seville city council has funded a major renovation and cleanup, increasing pedestrian-only areas and installing new fountains and benches. Today the park is much busier and the neighborhood has, per one local website, “attracted plenty of trendy, alternative types as well as a large gay community.” Say hello to Richard Florida’s city-boosting young creatives.

The lesson, as Jacobs reminds us, is that a park is loved only as well it’s maintained — and the dirty little secret of today’s showpiece parks is their exorbitant maintenance costs. Compared to the average New York City park, the High Line costs about 50 times more per acre to maintain, according to Benepe, the former NYC parks commissioner.

“The city would not have even entertained the notion of building this park if Friends of the High Line had not committed to maintaining it long-term,” Benepe said. The group spends more than $5 million every year taking care of plants, arts programming and general upkeep. (Despite all those millions in increased tax revenues, the city parks department provides only modest security and an annual structural inspection.)

Similarly showy Millennium Park is also expensive to maintain. The Chicagoans who raised the money for its art — think of Anish Kapoor’s mirrored “Bean” sculpture and the water-spouting faces of Crown Fountain — initially planned to create a park conservancy funded by private donors. But once they realized how much it would cost, they backed off.

“They discovered very soon that it was not possible to run the park,” Lois Weisberg, Chicago’s longtime former cultural affairs commissioner, said at a City Council budget hearing in 2008. For now, park operating costs — more than $8 million per year — are coming out of the city’s pocket. Millennium Park is a fantastic park, beloved by locals and a symbol of the new, global Chicago. But over a decade, in a city facing huge deficits, it has pulled more than $80 million of taxpayer money away from schools, safe streets and neighborhood parks.

Cities looking to transform their own hunks of abandoned infrastructure, Benepe said, “need to understand the circumstances with the High Line and be realistic about the possibilities.” Finishings on the Bloomingdale will be less expensive than those of the High Line and maintenance should be less demanding, according to Urbanski. Still, plans for the park include creating ecological diversity by altering the trail’s topography, construction of a winding, plant-lined observatory and phenological plantings, in which flowers placed at various points along the trail bloom on different days due to their proximity to the lake.

The Trust for Public Land is studying the Bloomingdale’s long-term stewardship requirements and readying an estimate for annual park maintenance costs. “It’s easy to saddle someone with something they can’t care for,” Urbanski said. “I’ve been talking to the parks about my concerns regarding long-term maintenance. We don’t want everyone to get excited and then five years later it doesn’t look good because it’s not being maintained.”

Despite the support of several major corporations, a half dozen city departments, the Friends of the Bloomingdale and an array of Chicago power players, White has expressed some concern about funding the continued maintenance of the park, which will be overseen by the Chicago Park District. No plans will be made to create a conservancy until long-term funding costs are clear. “We’ve got a year and a half,” Koch said, referring to the initial park opening planned for fall 2014. “There’s plenty of time to nail down the model.”

“All Sorts of Crazy Projects”

The High Line will continue to inspire imitators. It’s a wildly appealing park that represents the confluence of three urban trends: The rise of public-private partnerships, the recycling of abandoned infrastructure and the emergence of quality-of-life investments as economic growth strategy. “I hope the High Line will encourage people to pursue all sorts of crazy projects,” Hammond writes at the end of he and David’s book, “even if they seem, as the High Line once did, the most unlikely of dreams.”

Starry-eyed followers in the footsteps of Hammond and David might ultimately find the achievements of the original more fantasy than reality. And that’s fine. A park that serves the daily needs of hundreds or thousands of city residents may, in the end, be more valuable than one that is adored but unnecessary.

“Everyone wants to piggyback on success, and to point to the High Line is one way of building support,” said Rogers, of TPL. “Ultimately these projects have to work for the local community and the city where they are. The story really is local. Sometimes these investments go beyond that and become real signature projects, attract attention from around the world, and that’s always great. But first and foremost, it’s excitement and connection with people on a local level that they want to create and extend.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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A freelance journalist and editor based in Istanbul, David Lepeska writes about Islam, technology, media, and cities and sustainability, and has contributed to The New York Times, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Metropolis, Monocle, The Atlantic Cities and other outlets.

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