ENGLEWOOD — The city is taking a major step that could result in the creation of a 1.7-mile-long park and trail system on an unused rail line in Englewood, a project similar to the The Bloomingdale Trail and "The 606" system being built on the North Side.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Office formally submitted an ordinance to the City Council last week proposing that the city exchange land with Norfolk Southern railway company.
The railway would get land near 63rd Street to expand its rail yards, and the city would get a stretch of elevated rail line north of 59th Street between Hoyne Avenue and Wallace Street that has been unused for decades. No money would change hands.
Tanveer Ali breaks down the project and how long neighbors will have to wait before it may become a reality:
City officials and community leaders say the land swap is the first major step in remaking the rail line into a space for public use.
"Acquisition is the first step to any plan," said Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner of the city's Department of Housing and Economic Development. "The proposal is being envisioned as a linear open space that could be publicly accessible as a park."
While people who live near the rail line said it's a magnet for crime now, the potential project would make it a neighborhood backbone by connecting parks, urban farms and neighborhood cultural landmarks.
"The question now is, how quickly can we make this happen?" said John Paul Jones, president of the nonprofit Sustainable Englewood Initiatives.
Jones helped identify the rail line for potential recreational use in 2007, along with the idea of turning it into a park or using it in an environmentally friendly way.
In 2009, a preliminary design for the New ERA Trail — ERA meaning "Englewood Remaking America" — was released, envisioning that the rail line would connect a series of parks as well as a "festival plaza and market."
Those proposals and so many more would be on the table for the project, said organizers Jones and Sonya Harper, a neighborhood resident who works at Wood Street Urban Farm, just north of the rail line.
"I'm looking forward to holding a party up there," Harper said. "This is going to be a wonderful plan. Right now, nothing good happens up there."
Whatever is planned for the rail line, it will take awhile. The idea behind The 606 — a network of parks connected by the 2.7-mile-long Bloomingdale Trail — started in 2004. Work on that will finish next year.
Strazzabosco said after the land is acquired, which is expected to occur after a City Council vote on it sometime in the fall, the city would need to start an environmental analysis of the site and solicit community input.
While the Englewood project has obvious similarities to the Bloomingdale Trail, the South Side rail line has some differences too.
Walls separate the Bloomingdale Trail from the rest of the neighborhood, but the Englewood line is mostly separated from the area by sloped ground, which could make it easier to access and integrate with natural features of the neighborhood.
Jones said he'll be spending the next several months working with the city to get the proposal moving along. He said he was optimistic about the project, and wanted the city to invest in the Englewood project just as it had with the Bloomingdale Trail, which has an estimated budget of $91 million.
"We have to make sure that they replicate the best designs possible for this corridor," Jones said.
Cynthia Aarab, who for 42 years has lived on Winchester Avenue, just north of the rail line, welcomes the project.
She said she didn't like it when trains used to travel by her house, and she doesn't like how it is sometimes used today for "criminals to hide in."
"Making it into a park is the best thing they can do with it," Aarab said.
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