Urban Wood Boardwalk Cuts a Path to South Side Corner’s Renewal

An urban wood boardwalk will cut across a vacant lot at the busy corner of 79th St. & Halsted on Chicago's South Side.

An urban wood boardwalk will cut across a vacant lot at the busy corner of 79th St. & Halsted on Chicago’s South Side.

The boardwalk uses random lengths of honey locust, black locust and white oak milled from community trees .

The boardwalk uses random lengths of honey locust, black locust and white oak milled from community trees .

urban wood boardwalk

The foundation grid for the urban wood boardwalk is constructed of weather-treated 2x4s..

By Rich Christianson

A boardwalk being installed across a vacant lot at 79th Street and Halsted Avenue on Chicago’s South Side unites urban wood with urban renewal.

It is hoped that the boardwalk, which is scheduled to be completed this spring, will lure developers to bring new commercial business to the busy corner. Completion of the boardwalk will be marked by the dismantling of the chain linked fence that has surrounded the 13,000-square-foot lot since a three-story terra cotta building that last housed a Walgreen’s store more than a decade ago was demolished in February 2012. The property has been owned by the city of Chicago since 2004.

The boardwalk, not quite half completed, consists of random length planks of black locust, honey locust and white oak milled from community trees removed in Chicago and its suburbs. Wood for the project was procured from Horigan Urban Wood Products of Skokie. The boardwalk’s construction is being carried out by trainees of Greencorps, a program that offers adults career paths in the landscape and tree care industries.

Edde Jones, program director of Greencorps, said the program, based out of the Center for Green Technology at 4445 N. Sacramento Blvd., has evolved substantially over its two decades in existence. Jones said during its first 15 years or so, Greencorps mainly focused on installing or improving community gardens. “Now we’re looking more at improving public spaces in the city or county, such as the Cook County Forest Preserves,” she said.

Trainees who pass muster through a vetting process are paid to participate in a nearly one-year program. Among the things they are taught are basic horticulture, plant identification, and understanding the difference between desirable plants vs. non-desirable plants for various landscaping or restoration projects. They also learn how to safely use chainsaws, chippers and sprayers. “We have trainees who test for their pesticide license,” Jones said.

The end game of the program, which typically has about 30 trainees at a time, is to find full-time jobs for the graduates. “We don’t have as many people in our programs as the industry needs,” Jones said.

Inspired by Urban Wood
Jones said she was inspired to incorporate urban wood into the boardwalk project following a discussion with Edith Makra, chairperson of the Illinois Wood Utilization Team.

“We’re always looking at new projects to challenge our trainees with and to have them look at the world a little differently than they usually look at it,” Jones said. “Our trainees have helped the Chicago Park District remove trees after a huge storm. To see how trees can get reused to make something adds an element to their experience that gets them to think what else can happen to a tree after it is removed beyond just being fed into a chipper.”

The boardwalk will extend more than 160 feet in a meandering diagonal direction from the southwest corner to the northeast corner of the lot. It was designed by Jay Womack of WRD Environmental, a contracted partner of Greencorps.

Kyle Williams of WRD Environmental is project manager of the Greencorps training program. He explained that the project will use more than 4,000 board feet of urban wood planks ranging from about 48 inches to 60 inches in length. The 1-1/2-inch unfinished planks, kiln dried to about 12%, are spaced apart similar to a deck to allow for expansion and for rainwater to run off. The planks are being placed in random order and are by steel screws drilled into a grid of 8-foot by 2-foot rectangular frames made with treated 2x4s.

“We know that a lot of people are looking to use urban ash and it’s great of interior use, but the wood just does not hold up to the elements and Chicago climate,” Williams said. “Bruce Horigan (of Horigan Urban Wood Products) was very helpful in leading us to our three wood choices because of their ability to withstand the elements.”

Next Steps
The Greencorps team awaits spring and better weather to complete the boardwalk project. It will also include a handful of small plants and signage explaining where the wood for the boardwalk came from, plus a little history about the site itself.

“The community group we’ve worked with wanted an environmental theme and they liked the urban wood reuse from the get-go,” Jones said. “That’s what we’re trying to relay We can’t make it too pretty because this is meant to be a temporary installment but we do want everyone to feel comfortable in the space.”

“It will be interesting to see how the wood weathers,” Jones added. “This is new territory for us. Because the urban wood is not being treated with anything it’s just going to wear the way it is. If the project is successful, we could take the boardwalk down and use the wood elsewhere.”

“It’s a little bit of an experiment,” Williams said. “I’m not too familiar with many people using urban wood the way we are using it. I’m curious to see how the black locust reacts to weathering versus the white oak or the honey locust.

“Of all of our projects to date, this one has generated the most community interest.” Williams continued. “The residents seem very anxious and excited to see what’s going to put in there.”

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