From Slag to Sustainable: An eco-community rises from the ruins of a former U.S. Steel plant

Former U.S. Steel site, future green community; Sam Bowman

Former U.S. Steel site, future green community; Sam Bowman

It sounds like an architectural vision cut out of science fiction: a desolate industrial complex transformed into a new environmentally sound lakefront city supporting 12,000 residents. The plan, directed by Chicago’s Office of Community Development, will depend upon the integration of highways, trolleys, and the city’s street grid to create a new model for urban transportation. It is, in all senses of the word, groundbreaking. When the project is completed, the Steelhead LEED Neighborhood Development will change the face of the South Side. The question now is this: will this new community herald the dawn of the post-industrial, green American city, or will it be an expensive, wasted rehabilitation effort with little benefit for either the city or local residents?

One has to see the U.S. Steel plant to understand just how post-apocalyptic this part of South Chicago appears. The steel plant was officially designated as a contained disposal facility, with the hot byproducts of smelting ore, known as slag, deposited there. As the factory complex expanded, more buildings were built upon the slag, including housing for plant employees. In the 1980s, U.S. Steel closed the plant and demolished everything except the ore walls and employee housing. What remained was a bare landscape of “slag, concrete, and railroad tracks,” as Marilyn Engwall, chief planner of the new development, described the site in a presentation broadcast by Chicago Public Radio.

The site occupied prime lakefront real estate, and most of the land had reverted to government control after the departure of U.S. Steel. It took nearly ten years to secure the rights to the plant and to purchase a large amount of bordering property, with the city ultimately staking out over 1,140 acres of land for the project. Half of the plot now consists of former U.S. Steel land, almost all of it either empty or covered with slag. The other half consists of older neighborhoods, in which the more decrepit housing will likely be demolished. The plot runs from 79th Street to 87th Street and from Commercial Avenue east to the lake. Commercial Avenue, projected to be an area for restaurants and retail areas, is also convenient because it is large enough to support a trolley system on tracks, a key component of the plan.

Trolleys are an old idea brought in the service of a new goal. As Enghall noted in her presentation, “Over 30 cities are currently studying trolleys as a green way of transportation. Chicago had a world-class trolley system until the 1950s. Trolleys are an affordable, neighborhood-friendly means of transportation for quick runs.” They’re emblematic for LEED sites seeking to reduce the use of cars and to encourage a walkable city–“a healthy [area] where you can walk to places, almost like the kind of city our grandparents lived in,” in Engman’s words. They are just one part of the development’s overwhelming focus on environmental sustainability.

The project is designed around the rigorous Leader in Environmental and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines for neighborhood development put forth by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization. Molly Sullivan of the Chicago Department of Community Development says that all buildings in the area will have at least a Silver rating, awarded for a high level of eco-friendly design. Approved residential buildings will be primarily three-story apartments, each containing up to three flats. According to Engwall, the land will be mixed-use, with retail and residential homes just a trolley ride, if not a stone’s toss, away. She clarified, “We are anticipating one car per family; when gas was $4.50 a gallon, we thought we could get zero cars. You won’t need to drive out to get milk.” Even the new highway connecting the area to the rest of the city will narrow down from four lanes to one as it enters the residential quarter. It’s expected that the waterfront park that dominates the development will be a walk away as well.

Turning an industrial building with no soil to speak of into a park is not the simplest thing to do; early estimates placed the cost of soil alone at $100 million. As it turns out, Chicago’s need for soil concurred with concern in Peoria over the silt deposits in the Illinois River nearby. The river had filled up with silt from navigation canals, reducing the depth from 18 to 3 feet and killing fishing- and boating-related tourism. With a $2 million grant from the state, the cities made a deal: barges began to dredge out the silt in Peoria and transport it up the river up to Chicago. The sediment was then transferred in garbage trucks and set down on the lakefront in a layer 2 to 3 feet deep. Fourteen million tons of silt were transported from Peoria to Chicago for the purpose of covering over the silt. The area is currently not open due to security concerns, but it is slowly growing into a forested park.

Even with all of the intelligence, manpower, and luck behind the project, the planners could not anticipate the economic slowdown and investors’ resulting loss of interest in development. This is a major issue. Prior to the crash, plots were offered at low prices to encourage development, but only 65 had been sold. Sullivan confirms that they are advocating legislation to encourage developers to build there.

One troubling question is how this new development will change the demographics of the South Side. The project is oriented towards the “middle to upward class,” according to Engman’s presentation, and should support 12,000 residents. While the project does replace the abandoned site of a former major employer with a retail, service industry, and commercial hub, the damning label of “urban gentrification” might well be applied here. Only half of the project is set on the old U.S. Steel site; the rest of the land consists of adjacent neighborhoods, and at least some of the current homes in those areas will be demolished to make way. The Office of Community Development had no comment on any plans to reach out to South Side residents. Another question is whether the families with young children that would most appreciate a contained park/city environment will choose this development in the middle of the city over the Chicago suburbs: the site might be there, but residents will not necessarily come.

Fully LEED-compliant neighborhoods are appearing across the U.S., mostly concentrated on the East Coast and in California. When the U.S. Council for Green Building Institute launched a pilot program for the LEED for Neighborhood Development guidelines, it received over 240 proposals. Are artificial isles of nature and calm residential areas in the middle of the city becoming the new face of American urban development? It is especially interesting to see hubs of commerce wiping the old industrial plants off the map. Regardless of the fate of this particular development, future construction will change the face of the South Side.
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