In Chicago, The 606 trail has been a blessing and a problem
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The 2.7-mile recreation trail, known as The 606 and built on old Chicago & Pacific Railroad line, has been praised as a model use of public space since it opened two years ago. It’s regularly packed with bikers, joggers and walkers.
Art installations and eclectic programming — including evening stargazing sessions, AfroLatin music and dance demonstrations and puppet shows — have helped make the linear park a tourist destination.
The 606’s charms notwithstanding, some residents along the western portion of the trail say the recreational space has been both a blessing and curse. It brought much-needed green space in a part of Chicago that lacked it, but it’s also driving up property values and rent prices in their once-affordable neighborhood.
“I miss my neighborhood; I miss my neighbors; I miss my local stores,” said Alicia Avila, who had rented near the western edge of the trail for 11 years but moved to a cheaper Chicago suburb this month because of the rising housing costs that have followed the trail, which takes its name from the Chicago ZIP code prefix.
“I know gentrification is going to happen, but it should happen in a responsible way so that people who have been here for many years can co-inhabit the same space.”
Call it the greening neighborhood conundrum. The paradox that Chicago faces with its new gem is playing out in other big cities around the nation. They’re finding it’s difficult to add marquee park space on derelict tracks and bridges in low-income areas while also keeping housing prices in check for longtime residents.
Now, designers and city officials seeking to create recreational space on abandoned industrial eyesores are recognizing — belatedly, in some cases — their chicken-and-egg quandary: How do you add green space in lower-income areas without inevitably setting those populations up to be displaced by more well-heeled neighbors looking to enjoy the amenities?
“This issue calls for cross-sector collaboration,” said Adrian Benepe, director of city park development at The Trust for Public Land, the San Francisco-based non-profit that worked with Chicago officials on The 606. “It’s not enough to say you’re going to build a park and stick your head in the sand and say, ‘We only care about the park. We don’t care what else might be going on.’ ”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced plans for a new fund in April to help residents living near parts of Atlanta’s BeltLine whose tax bills are rising as the city rebuilds the old railway into a multi-use trail.
In Washington, D.C., organizers of the 11th Street Bridge Park, a $45 million proposal to transform a dormant bridge into recreational space, have drawn up an “equitable development plan” that sets goals for affordable housing and job creation for residents in a low-income neighborhood that would be affected by the project. The non-profit Local Initiatives Support Corp. has committed to spend $50 million to support groups providing affordable housing, early childhood education, food support and other services around the park.
The founders of the High Line in New York City — the ballyhooed 1.45-mile trail built on abandoned railway on the lower West Side that was the forerunner to The 606 and similar “rails to trail” projects — last year launched the High Line Network, a consortium that includes representatives from 19 adaptive reuse park projects across North America to help share lessons learned.
The High Line, which opened in 2009, saw property values spike 103% for real estate within a five-minute walk from the trail between 2003 and 2011, according to city government data.
The dazzling park, which has drawn more than 20 million visitors since July 2014, has been criticized for becoming a tourist magnet rather than a neighborhood amenity. A 2016 study by Queens College political scientist Alex Reichl also found that fewer than 7% of High Line users were black or Latino — a striking observation considering the trail was built near two public housing complexes with large black and Latino populations.
“I want to make sure other people don’t make the mistakes we did and learn how to deal with these issues,” Robert Hammond, co-founder of the High Line, told the website City Lab earlier this year. “We certainly don’t have all the answers.”
In Chicago, three city council members last month proposed a pilot ordinance that would require developers to pay as much as a $650,000 fee if they want to demolish and replace habitable housing near parts of The 606 trail.
The monies collected for the proposed Chicago program would go into an affordable housing trust, which would help homeowners pay for property taxes and needed home repairs. The ordinance appears to face an uphill battle to passage.
“One of the issues that the city government and funders should have foreseen is the accelerated gentrification, the accelerated increases in property values and taxes that we could have programmed for at the time,” said Juan Carlos Linares, executive director of LUCHA, a Chicago affordable-housing group that has backed the proposed ordinance.
While real estate values in the neighborhoods around the trail have been rising for years, housing prices have risen sharply along the western segment of the trail that cuts through Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods — areas that historically have had large Latino populations and, until recently, plenty of reasonably priced housing.
The 606 has had more modest impact on the already-gentrified neighborhoods on its eastern edge, but real estate prices on the once-affordable western side have skyrocketed by 48.2% since ground was broken on the trail in 2013 and rose 9.4% during the first year the trail was open, according to a November 2016 report from the Institute of Housing Studies at DePaul University.
In the six years prior to The 606 opening, between 15% and 19% of single-family home sales went to investors and developers. In 2015, the year the trail opened, the figure reached 21%, and in the first quarter of 2016, it was almost 31%, the study found.
“It’s much more difficult to take action retroactively,” said Geoff Smith, the lead author of the DePaul study. “It’s a lot more expensive and complicated to intervene after the fact.”
Aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel say his administration has worked to maintain affordable housing along The 606 corridor and help keep longtime residents in the neighborhood.
In 2016 the city created a $1 million forgivable loan program for lower-income homeowners on the western edge of The 606 to help them pay for needed exterior repairs as well as electrical, plumbing and heating fixes on their homes.
John Graham, 57, has mixed feelings about the changes that have come with the trail.
Graham, a plumber, bought his home for $50,000 a stone’s throw from the trail in 1991, when the area was overwhelmed by violent gang-fueled crime and he struggled to find a bank that would write him a mortgage.
Graham opposes a city council proposal that could block him and his neighbors from trying to cash out now. Yet he sounded doubtful he would pursue such a deal if he could get one.
“I had talked to my wife about selling our house to a developer or even going in on a deal where we would develop it ourselves and be partners,” Graham said. “My wife’s reaction was shock and horror. She said, ‘How could you even think about doing that to our neighbors?’ ”
Juan Carlos Linares, shown with his children, Amaru and Maya, is executive director of LUCHA, a Chicago group that backs an ordinance that would make it costly for developers to tear down homes near The 606 trail.
John Graham, a 57year-old plumber, bought his home for $50,000 in 1992 in what was once a crime-ridden neighborhood near The 606 trail. The trail has improved the neighborhood, but new development is making it unaffordable for his neighbors.
The 606, the Bloomingdale line trail. By many measures, an effort to convert derelict elevated railway on Chicago’s Northwest Side into a stunning linear park has been a smashing success. Yet many residents at one end of the trail are grumbling.