Gardens and Rust

Gardens and Rust

A mangled airfield, a crumbling parking Garage, and a defunct stretch of railroad—Chicago’s most ambitious park projects are also second acts for decaying infrastructure. Chris Bentley takes a hike to check on their progress.

Think “Chicago” and “park,” and most people will picture Millennium Park. Its glinting Bean (artist Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate”) has become a Chicago totem alongside the volumes of The Sears (Willis) Tower and John Hancock Center—quite a feat for a park that just turned 10 years old, eclipsing memories of its bloated budget and construction timeline. It is the second most visited tourist attraction in Illinois, behind Navy Pier.

But three in-construction projects are forging new public spaces from West Town to Lakeshore East, attempting to build off the renewed interest in public space as residents return to Chicago’s downtown. The mix of public and private funds behind each of them hints at the hope that they will replicate the “Millennium Park effect,” multiplying nearby real estate values.

The 606, Northerly Island, and Maggie Daley Park are poised to transform nearly 100 acres of the city. Among locals, at least, the three projects have raised questions of equity and public investment, but also stirred excitement with inventive designs unlike anything else in a city whose professed dedication to open space goes back to its motto: urbs in horto, city in a garden.

The 606

Long known (and still referred to by some locals) as The Bloomingdale Trail, The 606 is Chicago’s rails-to-trails project. Often likened to the High Line, it is different in a few key ways from the elevated park in New York City: At 2.7 miles, it is substantially longer; it will be opened all at once instead of in half-mile segments; and it includes bike paths.

The bicycle infrastructure was critical to the project’s funding. By qualifying as an alternative transportation corridor, The 606 nabbed $50 million in U.S. Department of Transportation funds, through the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) improvement program. The city and county kicked in another $5 million, while private funding is expected to make up the rest of the nearly $95 million project. The project still needs about $20 million in private funding, but has set a June 2015 opening date. Though most of it is not funded through local tax dollars, The 606 is still the Chicago Park District’s most expensive capital project by far in recent years.


But Beth White, director of the Trust for Public Land’s Chicago Office, says it is hard to overstate its value. In addition to more than two and a half miles of linear park space along the reclaimed rail line, which runs through Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Wicker Park, and West Town, the project includes four new street-level parks and improvements to dozens of bridges along the way. “It’s taking pieces of heritage and transforming them for our future,” said White. TPL is planning The 606, part of a park building boom the likes of which the city has not seen in 100 years. “There is something going on in Chicago, without a doubt,” continued White. “People are understanding how important parks and public land are.”

It has taken more than a decade to realize The 606, which was first envisioned as a way to connect park-poor and predominantly Latino West Side neighborhoods with transit lines and destinations to the east. Named for the first three digits of Chicago’s 60 zip codes, The 606 still appears in renderings by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) to be a melting pot and access way for neighborhoods long lacking ample park space.

Since its inception, however, The 606 has helped drive a real estate boom in the area that has exacerbated tensions over the changing ethnic and economic makeup of the West Side. The median sale price in Humboldt Park is up a whopping 62 percent according to real estate website Redfin, which in August named the neighborhood “Chicago’s Hottest.” They cited The 606 as a reason why.

Beth White said it is an unparalleled neighborhood amenity for longtime residents and newcomers alike. “Here’s a space that was first designed to move freight cars, and functioned that way for 100 years,” she said. “It was designed to keep people off of it, and it was a dividing line between neighborhoods.” Now it’s bringing them together.

Northerly Island

Although many Chicagoans know the southern portion of Northerly Island as the former home of Meigs Field—a single-strip airport that Mayor Richard M. Daley had bulldozed in the middle of the night to head off efforts to reopen it after its initial lease had run out—Studio Gang Architects hopes it will soon be known as the city’s ecological oasis.

Building on the popularity of 12th Street Beach, where South Loop residents come to fish and glimpse birds, Gang’s design uses nature to activate the manmade peninsula that Daniel Burnham originally planned as the northernmost in a string of five islands forming an archipelago in Lake Michigan. The plan calls for year-round use of the coastal park, made up of wetland, prairie, and savannah ecosystems—an urban wilderness at the foot of the Chicago skyline.

Construction is underway on phase one of the project: the southern 47 acres of the site, including campsites, a nature trail and bike path, and an “outdoor classroom.” The plan is to open in fall 2014.

Future phases, still years from completion, include more “active” uses as Northerly Island abuts downtown Chicago. Boat rentals, an event pavilion, and an amphitheater/ice-skating rink act as a gradient from the popular museum campus at the peninsula’s northern end to the relative peace and quiet of the ecological restoration farther south.

Some of the landscape work is a reintroduction of native habitat destroyed by development. The Prairie State, Illinois, has almost no prairie left, ecologically speaking. So on the new Northerly Island, prairie will occupy more than twice as much land as any other habitat. The restoration of lakefront grasslands is also meant to aid migrating birds, whose travels through northern Illinois often end in collisions with glassy downtown towers.

Studio Gang’s plan is also part of a larger effort to restore native fish populations and habitat in the Great Lakes basin. A reef and lagoon ecosystem will harbor spawning areas for species like walleye and coho salmon. “These environments will be living examples of the region’s fascinating ecology,” reads Studio Gang’s framework plan for the park. “[It] aims to create an internationally recognized destination enhancing Chicago’s worldwide leadership in urban environmentalism.”

Maggie Daley Park

Surveying the rolling hills, whimsical playground pieces (including a stranded ship), and warped ice rink pathway wending through evergreens, it is easy to forget Maggie Daley Park started as an update to a buried parking garage. Currently under construction and set to open next year, the downtown park is a slightly surreal addition to Chicago’s “front lawn” of Millennium Park and Grant Park. MVVA, lead designer on The 606, is also sculpting these 28 acres.

On a hazy day in August the construction site is humming with activity. White blocks of geofoam are stacked like sugar cubes (their light weight supports the curvy landforms without buckling the parking structure below). Outsized construction vehicles tamp down muddy pathways—it looks more like terraforming a new planet than landscaping a park.


Maggie Daley Park, named for the city’s former first lady, replaces Daley Bicentennial Plaza, which has served as the cap to the 3,700-car underground Millennium Lakeside Garage built in 1979. Rather than make roof repairs, however, the Chicago Park District has poured $60 million in public and private funds into a new park on the other side of Frank Gehry’s serpentine bridge leading east out of Millennium Park. The swirling form of that bridge flows into the curving pathways that criss-cross the new park. “All great parks are also great neighborhood parks,” said MVVA’s Matt Urbanski. The immediate neighborhood for Maggie Daley will be the adjacent high-rise community of Lakeshore East, which has come into its own in the last 15 years. But MVVA and the city solicited feedback on the public park from all over the city.


What they got, said Urbanski, was a mix of calls for quiet promenades alongside requests for highly active spaces. So they designed both. Between programmed areas, more traditional winding pathways and seating areas will offer a break from The Loop commotion and connect pedestrians from Lakeshore East to the Art Institute and Millennium Park.

The northwest area of the site is a climbing wall in an evergreen “Enchanted Forest.” A quarter-mile ice ribbon—a slightly sloped, irregular circuit for skating in winter and walking in summer—wraps around the mountainous climbing wall. On the other end of the park a “Play Garden” (Why not playground? “That sort of sounds like a place where you might get beat up,” said Urbanski) boasts long tubular slides and a wooden fort lording over the “crater” below. Nearby a stranded ship makes exploring the wavy landscape a bit more literal. “It’s meant to suggest a narrative,” said Urbanski, “but the kids can figure out their own.”

The previous design was a modernist plaza that stuck mostly to the rigid grid of its underlying mechanical systems, existing bits of which will be hidden among groves of trees in the new park. It is a humanistic space, said Urbanski—one emblematic of a new generation of Chicago parks. “There’s a kind of embrace of the felt experience,” he said. “It’s not imposing a view on the landscape.”