Mending Brownfields: It Takes a Little Village

Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

By Matt Baker

The car bounced down the road, avoiding deep potholes and the snow and ice piled high on the curbs. Margaret Renas turned off of bustling Kedzie onto a narrow road. Beautiful, turn-of-the-century houses lined the residential street, but also the occasional dress store, taqueria or auto repair shop.

This is Little Village, a proud and vibrant neighborhood where businesses aren’t limited to the main commercial drag. But Renas’ job as she drove around the southwest side neighborhood was to ignore these signs of life. She was brownfield hunting.

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) recently announced a joint initiative with Delta Institute, where Renas is a project manager, to map and revitalize the brownfields in the community. Volunteers will go out into the neighborhood collecting data on abandoned properties; this data will ultimately be put into a GIS map to create a visual action plan for revitalizing the area.

Brownfields are easy to define but hard to spot. A property is considered to be a brownfield if it is vacant and any redevelopment would be complicated by the presence of contamination, whether real or perceived. That last part is important; the mere perception of hazardous materials is enough to keep many developers from even considering a site.

An abandoned gas station would make for a difficult renovation due to the underground fuel tanks and other contamination issues. But what about an empty lot surrounded by active, industrial uses? To most, it’s safe to assume that the lot once held an industrial operation of its own, which has allowed who knows what chemicals to leach into the soil. Even if it hadn’t, the proximity to other potential toxic sources is enough to scare off many prospective buyers.

“This [inspector] comes out, gets out

of her car, and legitimately throws up

from the smell of garbage.”


That perception can sometimes be based merely on the fact that nobody has done anything with the site, therefore something must be wrong with it. But the true status of a property can’t be known without a little digging—whether in soil or through paperwork. The two-year project will see an army of local volunteers walk their neighborhood with a more discerning eye than they may be accustomed to. “These boarded up buildings can just become part of the scenery and you forget what the history of them was or how long they’ve been there,” said Renas.

The project aims to educate the community’s youth about environmental justice, as well as to harness their idealism and energy. According to Kim Wasserman, the Senior Advisor to LVEJO and its former Executive Director, the foundation of environmental justice is residents having intimate knowledge of their immediate surroundings. “What better way to figure that out than walking block by block?” she said. “They start looking at everything that is in their backyard and then we start looking at the assets that go along with that.” From there, it is a matter of deciding what the neighborhood’s resources are and what its needs are, and then determining how to use the former to fulfill the latter.

During their survey, they will tabulate a multitude of characteristics for each site: size, location, how it’s zoned, the properties surrounding it, status of any structures and much more. “Then we will look at EPA databases to see if there were any releases reported on the site,” said Wasserman. “We’ll look at property tax records and any records from the city of Chicago that would suggest ownership of these sites.”

Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

Digging Deep

Tracking down the owners may require a bit of detective work. During her initial windshield survey of Little Village, Renas came across a potential brownfield, comprising an entire city block. It was fenced in and empty but for a few trees, some utility poles and, quizzically, a speedboat.

The untended nature of the trees indicated that the lot had been inactive for some time and tracking down the property owner might be more difficult. Surveyors may talk with the site’s neighbors, and record their remembrances of how it had been used in the past. Because of the power lines, information about the property could be gleaned from ComEd.

And then there’s the boat. Ideally it needn’t come to this, but tracking down the owner of the boat based on its registration number may lead to the lienholder of the fenced-in site. “I would have to go back in the records to find out what that boat is about,” said Renas. “Why would they think they can put it here? Do they own the property?”

Once the mapping project is complete, Delta and LVEJO will cull their list of brownfields down to a list of about 20 or 25 high-priority sites. These they will present at community meetings to get an understanding of which ones the residents view as significant. They will also conduct research in order to discover any work that others have already done with the brownfields that they have identified. Through this community input and research, LVEJO and Delta can reduce their list to around ten. “That’s when the real work begins,” said Wasserman.

Environmental site assessments will show the level of toxicity on each site. Ideally, the ten best locations merely have an appearance of contamination and, armed with the knowledge of their benign nature, developers can be courted to help build up the properties. This scenario is unlikely, however, given the industrial history in Little Village. At least some, if not most, of the preferred properties will have some contamination. Then the job is to figure out to what degree the site needs to be cleaned up and who will pay for it.

The two organizations may approach the city for financial help if a prospective developer is attached to a site. The recently-formed Cook County Land Bank Authority is another tool that can expedite the transfer of a property title into the hands of a developer. They may also take legal action against the property owner to remediate the site.

But according to Wasserman, there needs to be a change in the conversation between the community and companies looking to set up shop in the neighborhood. “It’s no longer about just inviting anybody in that gives us a job and then we’re stuck with this legacy issue when they leave,” she said. “What does it mean to be a good neighbor? If you come in and do your business here, we want to make sure that when you leave, you’re not leaving behind all of your garbage and contamination.”

“There is a lot of creativity that can go into funding cleanups,” said Renas. Depending on the end use, there are potential funds available from municipal, state and federal programs, beyond just brownfield programs. “That’s why it will be important that we cull down this large number of sites to a manageable number, because there may be a specific strategy for each site in terms of funding and redevelopment.”

Community Coalition

This isn’t the first major redevelopment project that LVEJO has undertaken, nor is it even the first mapping project. Little Village only has one significant piece of open space, Piotrowski Park. A decade ago, volunteers hoping to change that walked the neighborhood and plotted out the best places to add new parks. The result: the city broke ground last fall at 28th & Sacramento for a large park that will be completed later this year. The 23-acre site was formerly an asphalt roofing manufacturing facility which the EPA had designated a superfund.

Photo: David Wilson Coal burning operations were halted in 2012 at the Fisk Generating Station (above), as well as the Crawford facility, in part because of the actions of environmental activists (below).

Photo: David Wilson
Coal burning operations were halted in 2012 at the Fisk Generating Station (above), as well as the Crawford facility, in part because of the actions of environmental activists (below).

Photo: Matt Leonard/

Photo: Matt Leonard/

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve fought some really great fights,” said Wasserman. “We’ve won some of those fights and we’ve lost some.” The biggest fight arguably came in late 2012 with the closure of the Crawford and Fisk coal power plants. Midwest Generation, the plants’ owner, shuttered Chicago’s two largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions after a prolonged grassroots campaign, spearheaded by Wasserman and LVEJO.

For her leadership on the Crawford and Fisk closings, Wasserman was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize last year. More importantly, the residents will no longer suffer higher rates of asthma and bronchitis.

The Crawford Plant, which sits at the corner of Pulaski and the Chicago River, has an uncertain future. The best case scenario for its redevelopment, according to Wasserman, would be an industrial/retail mixed-use. “That’s the first thing that people see when they come in the neighborhood,” Wasserman said. “And I think for us—to see something that makes the community proud, that really gives you a feeling for what you’re coming into—that is something ideally that all of us would like to see.”

Not all of these battles are so black and white. Back when the city still had a Department of Environment, they sent out an inspector to check up on complaints related to a garbage sorting facility. Residents were complaining of an increase in the rat population as well as foul odors coming from the company, to the point where they kept “smell logs” noting how often and how intensely they noticed odors. “This woman comes out, gets out of her car, and legitimately throws up from the smell of garbage,” said Wasserman. “We were like, ‘We won!’”

But it wasn’t that simple. They were able to negotiate with the garbage sorting facility to install retrogrades and abate some of the smells, but the company was operating 24 hours a day, even on weekends. A petition called for a reduction in work shifts from three to two; however, this would result in about 25 people—all Little Village residents—losing their jobs.

LVEJO put up voting stations around the neighborhood, seeking input as to whether they should push for a reduction in shifts or fight for better infrastructure changes at the facility. The community voted to eliminate the third shift. “But the fascinating part was once those people were let go, the community came together to help re-employ those 25 people,” said Wasserman. “It was a very hard conversation to have, but it was very well worth it because people were able to understand the reality of the economy behind it. It’s not just a question of demanding that somebody shut something down, It’s a question of putting a face to those people who are going to lose their jobs.”

The garbage sorting operation is still open, and still working with two shifts. Residents have noticed decreases in the smell, especially at night and on weekends, as well as in the rat population. “When the environmental movement started in the 70’s, it seemed it was set up more as a clash between the environment and businesses,” said Renas. “And now when we talk about sustainability, it’s more about working with private businesses and public agencies to come together for a solution that is environmentally sustainable and we now include people as a part of the environment.”

“In terms of redevelopment, the community’s input is pivotal,” said Renas. When the mapping project wraps up in two years, they may discover that the ideal brownfield locations—those with merely the perception of contamination—have already been snatched up by private development, leaving the properties that are more difficult to rectify. “In those situations we have to turn to creative reuse, looking again at private partnerships for redevelopment or even looking at creative options on green reuse,” said Renas. Early discussions on how best to use some sites have included sustainable infrastructure like rain gardens, bioswales and permeable pavement.

Ultimately, the map data and community input will be the two main vectors for the direction any redevelopment takes. If a prospective businesses is looking to expand into the neighborhood, the map will be an excellent tool to help them develop wisely. It also can ensure that residents aren’t caught off guard by, for example, a lightly regulated industrial use that could blight the neighborhood. “We are always so reactive as environmental justice folks,” said Wasserman. “In this case we are trying to be proactive.”

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