Neighborhood Focus: Eco-Conscious in Andersonville

By Matt Baker

Bike corrals, mobile urban parks, recycling bins and business certification are some of the more visible examples of the ecological acumen of Andersonville’s commercial corridor. Bike corrals promote healthier travel around the neighborhood.

Bike corrals, mobile urban parks, recycling bins and business certification are some of the more visible
examples of the ecological acumen of Andersonville’s commercial corridor.

Changes in how we interact with our environment come about in different ways. For example, the president can make a call to action on renewable energy, like Barack Obama did in this year’s state of the union address. Legislation, such as the revised energy conservation code, mandate behavior modification. But for the residents of north side Andersonville, change can also percolate from the bottom up.

Eco-Andersonville, an initiative of the Andersonville Development Corporation (ADC) is one such organization. The ADC is a non-profit, economic development association that aims to support the Andersonville neighborhood’s independently-owned businesses. But those very businesses and their customers were the impetus for Eco-Andersonville’s creation.

“We had a lot of people coming to us with concerns of the environmental impact of their businesses,” said Brian Bonanno, Sustainability Programs Manager at Eco-Andersonville. “They recognized that there was a more educated consumer—people looking for businesses that had a social or environmental ethic to their business model.”

So five years ago, the ADC organized Eco-Andersonville, tasked with assisting small businesses capitalize by operating at their customers’ expectations and make impactful changes in how they function. The organization has several programs to help local businesses stay economically viable in an increasingly environmentally-conscious marketplace. For example, the sustainable business certification program, open to independently-owned Andersonville businesses, conveys to consumers the environmental consciousness of the business.

There are other certifications out there, but many that Eco-Andersonville staff researched were either too big and expensive for the small businesses or they were too focused and not robust enough to address the neighborhood’s needs. The Andersonville green building certification has a three-star scale, based on a checklist of over 300 requirements.

So far, 13 businesses have gone through the certification process, seven of which attained three stars. Andersonville has a diverse commercial corridor, and those certified businesses include restaurants, a furniture store, dentist, chiropractor and others. “Part of the reason we made our own certification is the variety of businesses in the neighborhood,” said Bonanno.

Local design and creative firm Mightybytes earned three stars through the use of Energy Star appliances, VOC-free paint, water conservation and a host of other tactics. Similarly, Hamburger Mary’s received their three star-rating with the use of CFL and LED lighting, energy management and other methods. All of their cutlery, carryout packaging and napkins, for example, are made from either recycled content or vegetable starch.

Bonanno said there are plans for a small-scale badge system, whereby businesses who haven’t committed fully to the certification program can still receive attention for individual achievements in sustainability. “We attracted businesses that were very interested in sustainability and in making these improvements to their businesses but we want to broaden that out,” Bonanno said. Under the new badge system, “if they make improvements to water usage or change out lighting, they can put our Eco-Andersonville sticker on their window.” Not only can the business owners use the merit badge system as a form of marketing, it may encourage them later to go through the full certification.

The initiative that has received the highest praise from residents and business owners is the green building incentive program. Funded by the Andersonville Special Service Area—a city program that levies property taxes to enhance services along commercial corridors—this program supplies grants of up to $1,000 to local businesses to make sustainable upgrades to their properties. “We’re helping a business that otherwise couldn’t afford to do these improvements,” said Bonanno.

Eligible projects must attempt to make improvements in water conservation, hazardous material reduction, energy efficiency, air quality and/or renewables. The program is biased toward organizations that have gone through the sustainable business certification program, though those that are seeking certification will be prioritized as well. In fact, the grant is a great tool for businesses trying to obtain certification.

Andersonville businesses have used the program to finance everything from vegetated roofs to lighting upgrades. “We can make some of these products very affordable for small, independent businesses,” said Bonanno. A local coffee shop recently used a grant to install energy-efficient hand dryers while a furniture store completed a migration from halogen to LED lighting.

Andersonville is now home to the only commercial district recycling program outside of the Loop. Pedestrians can recycle their paper, glass and aluminum in one of 15 receptacles along Clark Street. The recycling bins were purchased using a grant from the Illinois Department of Economic Opportunity and weekly collection is funded by local businesses that sponsor each bin for one year. In the three years since inception, the neighborhood has collected over 23 tons of recyclable material.

The “people spot” is perhaps the most visible example of the sustainable changes that Eco-Andersonville is helping bring to fruition. “Our neighborhood is a pretty dense and urban area with a lack of open space,” said Bonanno. “This is a good way to cheaply and quickly create public space for the neighborhood. It also gets people to rethink how they use the space around them.”

The people spot was inspired by the Park(ing) Day movement, an annual event where cities around the world take a metered parking spot and install tiny public parks in an effort to raise awareness about open spaces and urban sprawl.

The Andersonville people spot, however, is a semi-permanent 6’ x 44’ mini park that is installed from March through December. Made from indigenous plants, recycled milk jugs and other materials, the people spot gives a park space, even a tiny one, to the residents of Andersonville.

Two bike corrals, such as this one in front of the Hopleaf, are among the first on-street corrals in the city.

Two bike corrals, such as this one in front of the Hopleaf, are among the first on-street corrals in the city.

Another highly visible sign of change are the two sections of Clark Street that have been turned into dedicated space for bike corrals, only the second and third on-street corrals anywhere in the city. “Most of the racks are filled every night, especially in front of the Hopleaf,” said Bonanno. The local bar donated the funds necessary for the corral outside their premises.

Bonanno hopes that the people spot and bike corrals promote Andersonville as a pedestrian- and bike-friendly community. “I think people right now see the importance of making a healthy community and having access to all modes of transportation,” he said.

Eco-Andersonville has also been involved with other organizations in an attempt to change composting regulations. The coalition, led by the Illinois Environmental Council, Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council and others, has been petitioning the state to broaden the legislation which currently limits large, commercial composting to facilities that have an expensive Class 3 recycling permit. “We want to create a scale for small size commercial composting facilities that can be located in urban areas,” said Bonanno. Under the proposed law, urban farms would be allowed to compost not only their waste, but accept off-site food scraps from residents, restaurants and other sources. The resulting nutrient-rich compost could then be used for urban agriculture projects or sold to local garden centers and landscapers.

Bonanno believes that the time is right for the new legislation and for community-level changes in sustainability. “I think after the economic downturn, people’s focus may have shifted,” he said. “We’re starting to see interest rebound, now that we’re coming out of a stressful period. People are more open to these types of changes, and they understand that making sustainability a priority for businesses and communities has a positive economic impact.”

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