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South Side Activism Has Brought Change To Industrial Site Selection

The industrial sector of commercial real estate is in the midst of a historic boom that shows no sign of slowing down, but developers in Chicago now face a few more hurdles before they can break ground. A few missteps and slipshod practices by some industrial operations energized communities tired of breathing polluted air. Neighborhood residents that once would have welcomed almost any jobs-rich facilities became more likely to ask a lot of questions — and launch protests — about possible impacts on their health and wellness.

That’s especially true on the Southeast Side. It is the historic home of Chicago’s largely vanished steel industry, which poisoned the land for at least a century, long before environmental concerns became important.

Gina Ramirez

“There is just a cumulative amount of pollution on the Southeast Side,” National Resources Defense Council Midwest Outreach Manager Gina Ramirez said. The third-generation neighborhood resident grew up breathing its unhealthy air and worrying about the high levels of lead and arsenic found in the surrounding soil. “There is a toxic legacy here that hasn’t been addressed.”

Much of the industry is gone, but its aftereffects still damage residents’ health. Life expectancy in the neighborhood is four years fewer than the Chicago average of 77, and cancer and asthma rates are also higher than the city average, according to a 2019 study by the University of Illinois’ Great Cities Institute. Air quality monitors installed around industrial sites along the Calumet River found in 2016 elevated levels of the neurotoxin manganese. City officials later found dangerous levels of the substance in the yards of many residents, according to the Chicago Tribune

The Southeast Side is increasingly seen as a natural site for many of the logistics facilities and warehouses Chicagoland developers want to construct, alongside its existing auto manufacturing facilities and other remaining industrial sectors.  

But the rules governing industrial site selection have changed. That is largely thanks to activist groups such as NRDC and others, which have pushed City Hall and the Chicago City Council to toughen rules and regulations governing the construction of warehouses, freight terminals, recycling and manufacturing facilities, or other operations that could bring in new truck traffic or emit pollution.

Those efforts have borne fruit, resulting in new laws such as 2021’s Air Quality Ordinance, which banned new incinerators and landfills in Chicago. It also strengthened residents’ ability to control what comes into their neighborhoods by requiring industrial developers to meet directly with community residents to address pollution concerns and added several layers of review on the issue by public health and other officials.     

“These things were nonexistent before,” 10th Ward Alderman Susan Sadlowski-Garza said. She represents much of the Southeast Side and credits Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s ascent to City Hall in 2019 as another catalyst for change. “The Air Quality Ordinance is something we’ve been working on for six years. Rahm wouldn’t even touch it.”

The botched April 2020 demolition of the Crawford Power Generating Station’s century-old smokestack in the mostly Latino Little Village neighborhood had put new energy into efforts to tighten air quality standards, she added. Developer Hilco Redevelopment Partners was clearing the way for a 1M SF distribution facility at 35th Street and Pulaski Road, but the smokestack’s collapse enveloped much of the Southwest Side neighborhood in a cloud of dust.

Residents and local aldermen complained to the Lightfoot administration that the dust cloud was hazardous, especially for those in a low-income neighborhood already hit hard by the coronavirus, and that this would not have happened in an affluent area.

"They would not have ignored local officials like they do here,” 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez said earlier this month at a community meeting, according to ABC-7 News. “They would have had public meetings to discuss the plans."

The Illinois attorney general later settled a lawsuit against the developer after the company agreed to help fund efforts to combat asthma and other health problems common in Little Village, according to Block Club Chicago. Lightfoot criticized Hilco for the botched demolition but did not heed calls from local environmental activists such as the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization to halt the project or take back its nearly $20M in tax incentives. The city council did approve a measure last October that allows the city in the future to take back tax incentives from developers that violate environmental rules.

The Crawford implosion wasn’t the only environmental controversy that reshaped Chicago’s approach to industrial development. Neighborhood activists and environmental organizations on the Southeast Side launched a campaign in 2019 to stop expansion of Reserve Management Group’s recycling business at 11600 South Burley Ave., where it has operated several recycling facilities for decades.

General Iron's North Side facility shortly before its December 2020 shutdown

In 2019, the company bought the assets of General Iron Industries, a family-owned recycler that ran a metal shredder near the affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood on the North Side. A 2015 fire at that facility had caused unease among General Iron’s neighbors, who eventually filed hundreds of complaints with the city about possible air pollution caused by the shredder, according to Block Club Chicago.

The site is adjacent to where developer Sterling Bay wants to create Lincoln Yards, a $6B mixed-use development, and RMG’s plan to shift General Iron’s aging shredding operation, which shut down on Dec. 31, to one of its Southeast Side facilities touched a nerve in the majority Latino and Black neighborhood.

“Adding another industry to an already-burdened neighborhood is just not the right thing to do,” Ramirez said. “It symbolizes that health and quality of life are more valued on the North Side than on the Southeast Side. The communities’ voices and their concerns were heard on the North Side, and our voices should be just as important.”

Ramirez and her neighbors have flexed their muscles in the past and successfully stopped plans and practices that they said were threats to public health. In 2012, after a campaign led by the Southeast Environmental Task Force, a local activist group, then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn blocked an energy company’s proposal for a coal gasification plant in the Southeast Side neighborhood of Hegewisch, where generations of steel workers once lived, according to Midwest Energy News.

In addition, around the same time, activists began protesting KCBX Terminals’ practice of openly storing along the Calumet River massive piles of petroleum coke, a gritty byproduct of petroleum refining. The company eventually agreed to first enclose and then eliminate the black piles, which could be several stories high.

“This is definitely something that happens every few years in this neighborhood,” Ramirez said. “We have to come together and say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

The state approved RMG’s plan, but the Southeast Environmental Task Force filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, alleging it was discriminatory to locate a shredder in the neighborhood. The group and other activists also held protests and marches around the city and even launched a one-month hunger strike earlier this year.

RMG spokesperson Randall Samborn said the anger is misplaced.

“The company saw the void that would be left by General Iron’s [eventual closure] and the opportunity to build a new metal shredding facility on the most expansive piece of land in Chicago that was properly zoned for that use and provides the widest gap between the facility and any residential neighborhoods or schools,” he said. “The city will also retain 100 well-paying, high-skilled jobs.”

RMG's plan for a South Side metal shredder

The new facility will also include a $2M pollution control device, he added, which General Iron had installed in 2019 in the wake of the neighborhood complaints over emissions. In addition, unlike at the Lincoln Park operation, RMG will enclose the shredder with panels on the sides and top to suppress noise and block the emission of dust and debris.

Although Lightfoot approved RMG’s plan in September 2019, as the activists’ campaign against the Southeast Side shredder kept the controversy in the news, in 2020 her administration also tightened up air pollution rules and regulations for large recycling facilities. New operations such as RMG’s now need special permits from the Department of Public Health after submitting detailed plans to control dust, noise and other potential health hazards and can be hit with increased fines if they violate the law.

“We are the first business to apply to the city of Chicago under the new rules,” Samborn said.

RMG is still waiting for the city’s Department of Public Health to approve its permit, he said.

Sadlowski-Garza said she strongly supports RMG’s plan to launch a new metal shredder, both because she believes the community needs the jobs it will bring and because she trusts the facility itself won’t pollute the environment.

“There used to be 124,000 steel jobs in this area, and when the mills left, we were left with the shell of a neighborhood,” she said.

But about 13,000 manufacturing and other industrial jobs are still in the area, and as long as these companies operate safely, they deserve support, Sadlowski-Garza added. The new rules for large recycling facilities, as well as the 2021 Air Quality Ordinance, should provide additional protection.  

“These are jobs that keep food on people’s tables, but we are done taking all the dirty industries,” she said. “That’s done. It won’t happen on my watch.”

The NRDC’s Ramirez said she remains unconvinced.

“The Air Quality Ordinance is a tiny step in the right direction,” she said.

She said she still wants the city and state to enact even tougher laws that would further cut down on the pollution industries can emit. And although NRDC and the other activists do want more economic development in the Hegewisch neighborhood, they would prefer it come from green-friendly companies that provide well-paying jobs, such as the Method Products factory in nearby Pullman, where it manufactures environmentally friendly soap.

“At the end of the day, there is just way too much heavy industry in this neighborhood,” she said. “It’s something we just don’t need anymore.”

The new rules and laws haven’t dissuaded developers from pushing big projects for the Southeast Side.

The Invert Chicago, a developer backed by Mokena, Illinois-based Ozinga Ventures, unveiled in January a proposal for a 6M SF underground storage facility at 11600 South Burley Ave., near the Calumet River and RMG’s recycling operations. Invert Chicago would carve out two levels of 3M SF each from the limestone about 250 to 350 feet below the surface, company President Steve King said.

Invert Chicago

That may sound like an unusual idea to Chicagoans, he said, but Kansas City already has SubTropolis, an even larger underground business park dug into limestone that provides consistent temperature and humidity year-round.  

“From a real estate and supply chain perspective, it sits in a great spot,” King said. Companies are drawn to the proximity to the river and the railroads and highways that crisscross the neighborhood. And as the 140-acre site could only hold an above-ground building of 600K SF or 700K SF, doing it underground means a much larger facility.    

Invert Chicago plans to conduct the now-mandated air quality study that will measure how the construction and operation of the mammoth facility will impact neighborhood residents, he said. The company will also work with Sadlowski-Garza to organize a community meeting, perhaps by this summer, to address environmental concerns.

“Especially in this neighborhood, community engagement has not always been done in a healthy way,” King said. “Community engagement was always going to be a part of our process, but now it’s been codified.”

King brought in Alberto Rincon, a Southeast Side native and mechanical engineer, to lead community planning for the venture. Before leaving Chicago to get a graduate degree in public policy, Rincon was an environmental activist, helping organize the neighborhood during the petcoke controversy, he said.

“I grew up several blocks from here, and I vividly remember the 50-foot-tall clouds of black dust,” he said.

Invert Chicago also decided to open in January a community engagement center in the neighborhood, and roughly 250 residents have dropped by the storefront location for information.   

“A lot of times, the resistance to development comes from a good place,” Rincon said. “There are health concerns with any large development that need to be addressed. We’re not running away from that. We embrace that.”

King pointed out that underground caverns like SubTropolis are environmentally sustainable, as they need little energy to run, and Invert plans to use a small solar farm for its needs. In addition, he said the company wants to attract the kind of businesses Southeast Side residents want.

“One thing that is loud and clear in the neighborhood is that they are tired of heavy industry.”

He envisions Invert Chicago renting out its space to vertical farmers, data centers and perhaps cannabis cultivators, among other sustainable firms.  

But the Invert venture has a long way to go before it gets a thumbs-up from city officials, residents and Sadlowski-Garza. And Ramirez said she and other activists will keep a skeptical eye on proposed developments such as the Invert and RMG’s new metal shredder.   

“My whole family is still here,” she said. “My son will be 7 in May, and I want to make this neighborhood as healthy as it can be for him.”