urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

Rocks in the park: designing Milwaukee and Leavitt

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I’d joke that this blog went on a winter hiatus and is now coming back on an inappropriate early spring thaw, but given that this is apparently the warmest winter in 80 years in Chicago, it’s perhaps more apt than humorous. I’m a big fan of winter (I am living in the coldest climate of anyone in my extended family), but there are a number of elements that I really appreciate about spring.

Among these is the ability to once again take full advantage of Chicago’s open and green spaces, including the Bloomingdale Trail-to-be. While that park is still in disused rail-viaduct form, work on the access parks is moving forward. One of these parks is Park 567, at the corner of Milwaukee Ave and Leavitt St.

At a community meeting last weekend, two architecture firms presented two options for the space; in both, Milwaukee is in the foreground, and the white beam on the right side of the photo represents the Bloomingdale Trail-to-be.

Option 1

This presents a raised berm from Milwaukee, sloping down again to a centralized area with rocks in the center flanked by trees. On the right side of the photo, the darker green area represents land that is set aside for the access ramp up to the trail.

Option 2

This represents the same park and view, but instead of a berm and a centralized area in the middle, there’s more of a round hill, with the rocks fronting onto Milwaukee as a “welcome” to the park. Similarly, the darker green area is again land that is set aside for the access ramp.


Among the goals of the park should be:

(1) Provide green space to local residents. Buildings and density are vital to urbanism, but it’s vitally important to provide a little bit of breathing room (on a human scale — see point 4 below);

Both of these options certainly provide exactly this green space, although I think Option 2 slightly wins out here. I find green space is one of those elements in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: several chunks of green grass are not the same as the same amount of grass together in one piece, and I like the large grassy central area that shades off to rocks and trees on the side.

(Just because there’s a piece of grass that doesn’t mean that it’s automatically good — again, see point 4.)

(2) Feel welcome and safe to all users;

This isn’t necessarily the same for everyone. The current park, which is more or less just an expanse of flat green grass, has a fence facing Milwaukee. Some parents were afraid that their toddlers would run off onto the sidewalk and into the busy arterial road without a fence. Conversely, the architects pointed out that a fence in a city park has a (perhaps natural) tendency to create a dog run. In fact, this is what I thought the park currently was; it certainly seems to me that there are a lot of dogs in the park often.

I fall slightly against the fence, although I like the aesthetic compromise of not a full fence but occasional barriers, which could be used as stations for public art.

(3) Offer places to sit, relax and feel separate;

That is, places to sit aside from on the ground. There aren’t going to be many office workers grabbing lunch in the area, but it’s still important. Assuming the rocks are not as tall as they are in the model — they engulf the little mannequins — and are safely rounded and designed, both options provide this.

I do remain a little bit skeptical that the rocks facing the sidewalk in Option 2 will be heavily used. Car traffic coming under the Bloomingdale on Milwaukee is a little bit loud, and the Blue Line roars overhead on the other side of the street. This is part of what draws me to Option 1: because the rocks are separated from the sidewalk and street by the stretch of green grass and form a cohesive whole, they seem slightly more welcoming.

(4) Avoid becoming abandoned open space or poor public land;

At the same time, it’s important not to feel too separate from the city.

An attendant in the meeting asked in Option 2, if instead of a raised hill it could be depressed, which would allow the park to act more as a performance space; one of the objections raised by the architects was that they didn’t want the park to look like an abandoned performance space. I think, in this case, there isn’t a whole lot of concern of that happening; but the general concern of not wanting the park to feel abandoned.

Especially in older cities like Chicago, there’s often a thin line that separates parkland and abandoned open space. Landscaping on a human scale and variety in design (two things, for example, that I have always felt are sorely lacking in Boston’s Government Center) are the two crucial elements in this case. Both options work — they don’t have large, windswept plazas; the rocks and the trees signal that this space has been designed; and the change in contours in land help to maintain variety. The park is small enough that it won’t feel totally separated from the streetscape as well.

(5) And act both as a standalone park and as an eventual access point.

This differentiates this park from other city parks. While the Bloomingdale Trail is almost certainly going to be built, it would be negative for the park to feel as if it were incomplete without the access ramp to the Bloomingdale; it needs to be able to stand alone. And even after the trail is complete, Park 567 is still a park at surface level that needs to serve those who don’t intend to travel up on the trail.


When it comes down to it, I’m really torn, but I would give the slight edge to Option 2, especially given the context that it is going to serve as an access point. In both of the pictures, much of the green space to the right (the darker land) is taken up by an access ramp that stretches all the way to the pavement on the left in both pictures, at this length due to ADA requirements for wheelchair access.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the pictures for what the park with the access ramp will look like, as this was only presented in the PowerPoint presentation given in the meeting, but in both cases the ramp will make a tight curve within the dark green space and then come down on the northern side of the park (the top of both pictures) towards the existing concrete on the left, in both options. The length is dictated by the requirement for ADA access. Option 2 seems superior in that, once the park is carved up by the access ramp, the central grassy area will remain there.

At the same time, I’m not sure I’m convinced of the rocks that push up to the sidewalk in Option 2; as I mentioned above, what attracted me to Option 1 was how I felt that the rocks were treated as a cohesive design element. But I think that if they’re placed carefully in Option 2, perhaps slightly fewer facing the sidewalk directly and placed further along the sides of the rounded hill, that that will work as well.

Fundamentally, I’m pretty happy with both renderings of the park options. It’s exciting to see how the plans are taking shape. Construction of the Bloomingdale Trail isn’t slated to begin until 2014, if my recollection serves me correctly, but it’s promising to see detail put into the design of these parks. I can only wait until they have the design meetings for the full elevated park.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 2, 2012 at 11:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] post before joining the book club was on an access park to the Bloomingdale Trail to be built at Milwaukee and Leavitt. But after reading chapter six of Death and Life, I felt like I’d like to take a fresh look […]

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