The 606: A Great Addition to Chicago

The 606 Trail definitely adds something to the city.  This project took an abandoned railroad right of way and converted it into an amenity that has pumped new energy into surrounding neighborhoods.

Anyone who ever passed over the railroad right of way on a CTA train before conversion knows that it was a stagnant eyesore.  Living right next to it must have been depressing.  Rail traffic had decreased significantly over the years and upkeep was not a priority.  Then the rail line was abandoned altogether in 2001.

A recent trip to the 606 on a nice day found it heavily used.  That is the mark of a successful public project.  So much money has been spent on bike lanes around the city that in many cases are lightly used.  Other rails-to-trails conversions in the area, such as in Lincolnwood and Skokie, seem on recent drive-bys to be slow catching on.  You have to wonder how much more infrastructure of this type we need.  But within minutes of walking up onto the 606 it is apparent that it has been strongly embraced by Chicagoans.

Nearby real estate values have apparently been on the rise.  The Chicago Tribune said in November 2016 that single family home values had risen about 50% since the trail’s groundbreaking in the third quarter of 2013.  A look at recent sales on Zillow in the area bounded by North Avenue, Armitage Avenue, Western Avenue and California Avenue seems to bear this out.  Homes have recently sold in the surprising range of $400-800,000.  A drive around that area reveals many in process development projects.

But there is also controversy here.  Long-time residents of the neighborhood say they are being priced out by redevelopment.  A measure to protect such people with anti-gentrification measures has been proposed.  It would impose higher demolition fees and a deconversion charge.  This deconversion charge would apply when renovating multi-family housing into more lucrative single family homes.

Crime can be a problem on the 606.  In the time since opening there have been a significant number of incidents, such as armed robberies.  The Chicago Police seem to be taking steps to reduce this problem in the form of ATV units to supplement existing patrols.  But trail users should be aware.  The west end runs through areas that are less gentrified.  Practical Chicago noticed a group of suspicious-looking people hanging around one of the access ramps.  They scattered and disappeared to street level quickly when they realized photos were being taken.

Landscaping is another problem.  The shock-absorbent running tracks on either edge of the main path are frequently blocked by shaggy plant life.  This requires either getting swiped by it or swerving off the track to avoid collision.  You would think this is something that could have been avoided.  A shock-absorbent running track is a great feature and it is a shame that more thoughtful planning did not go into this.  An entrance pavilion we encountered had  a long twisting ramp surrounded by rocks and more scrubby landscaping.  Following the twisting ramp down to ground level makes the task three times  longer than it should be.  We found it easier to jump down from level to level in a straight line.

The overall look of the entire trail is a little unkept.  It is hard to say when it became popular to use weed-like plants and prairie grass as landscaping.  But the 606 is a perfect example of how rag-tag it looks in an urban setting.  Perhaps when it grows in some more the look might improve.  But right now it is a failure.  Anybody who wants to see prairie grass can find plenty of it at the Indian Dunes, or many other places outside the city, and that might be where it should stay.  The cement structure on the sides of the old railroad embankment has also been cut away in some places.  It seems this was done for structural reasons.  But it does not work well from an aesthetic standpoint.

Discussions have been underway to extend the 606 trail east.  The idea is to connect it with new development planned for former Finkl Steel property on the west end of Lincoln Park.  This makes sense.  But significant obstacles stand in the way, most notably crossing something like seven very active tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad just west of the river.  A grade crossing is not at all practical, leaving only expensive options like tunneling.

One has to wonder if it was a great time to do something like this from a financial standpoint.  According to the 606 web site majority of funding, $56 million, came from public sources.  DNAInfo Chicago provides a more detailed perspective: $50 million worth of Federal grants and $5 million of city/local funds.  Everyone knows that City and State finances are in terrible crisis.  The Federal Government, while it has considerable borrowing power, is also not as solid as it once was.  According to statistics from the Treasury Department total public debt outstanding has gone from roughly $5.6 trillion in the year 2000 to about $19.8 trillion today.  S&P stripped the U.S. Government of its AAA rating in 2011 for the first time.  It bears wondering  how long we can keep writing debt to finance our way of life without consequence.

But whatever controversies there may be on project timing or execution the 606 is definitely a positive addition.  Hats off to our community leaders for making it a priority.  Wherever the money came from it definitely could have ended up somewhere else.

© 2017

To view Practical Chicago photos of the 606 click here.


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