Chicago’s Fisk and Crawford coal plants closed in August 2012. Now, as they await the identity of a developer to buy and remediate the former industrial sites, local groups have begun to outline plans for green space along the Chicago River.
In the coal plants’ wake, residents saw an opportunity to improve prospects for both clean manufacturing and green public spaces in Pilsen and Little Village, two predominantly Latino neighborhoods on Chicago’s southwest side. The Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) polled the plants’ neighbors, who resoundingly preferred the group pursue mixed-use solutions over all-green or all-industrial redevelopment plans.
Architecture for Humanity and local firm Latent Design produced concepts and renderings imagining the future of the sites, as well as a booklet summarizing PERRO’s vision and neighborhood surveys.
“This is a direct reflection of some of the community demands,” said Latent Design Principal Katherine Darnstadt. “We looked at the river as this conduit to a clean manufacturing center.”
Darnstadt envisions vertical integration along the river, from the 1871 tech hub downtown, through the creative hub of Pilsen, and ending with local manufacturing at the former coal plant sites downriver.
The plan depends on who the new tenant will be. A mayor-appointed task force, which includes members of PERRO as well as industry and city officials, has heard from dozens of interested buyers, according to PERRO’s Jerry Mead-Lucero.
His group’s original plans for a park that would span South Throop and Halsted streets are unlikely to become reality, said Mead-Lucero, after objections from utility ComEd and landowner Midwest Generation. Instead a parcel behind Chitown Futbol on South Throop Street could foster a river walk west of the Fisk site. But ComEd would maintain high-tension power lines overhead.
Depending on how much land ComEd and Midwest Generation agree to give up, that site could actually be bigger than the original proposal along the Fisk site inlet. But it’s also out of sight from Cermak Road, and many locals think Throop Street is a private drive for Chitown Futbol. In an area starved for green space, however, a consolidated park could become a destination.
“The proposals aggregate smaller developments on open space in Pilsen and bring them all to one larger space,” said Darnstadt. “It’s one thing to have passive access to the river, it’s another to say how can we engage it?”
Darnstadt’s proposal is for “Pilsen Pier” includes river walk landscaping to satisfy the 30-foot setback mandated by ordinance for all riverside developments, a floating dock or pier with a river taxi landing, and preservation of the coal plant’s smokestack. The rest of the space would be devoted to light or “clean” manufacturing.
The idea is speculative, she points out, and entirely conceptual. After a buyer comes forward, there’s still the issue of remediation. In March, EPA officials said tests for air quality and radiation around the Fisk and Crawford sites showed no lingering pollution in the immediate area. But lead contamination on nearby sites once home to smelting companies exceeded federal limits. A park may seem to be an extra burden to development, but Darnstadt said it could be a catalyst.
“It makes a very good narrative for future businesses,” she said, “because green space is an asset.”