In late August a barge floated up the Chicago canal and unloaded 1,500 tons of coal from Romeoville, Illinois. It’s a trip barges like it have made up to three times daily for decades, delivering coal to burn in one of two power plants on Chicago’s southwest side. But this one was the last.
The Fisk and Crawford coal plants will close in September. Their owner, Midwest Generation, agreed to decommission the facilities ahead of schedule under mounting pressure from environmental groups and to take advantage of $151 million in tax breaks. Falling natural gas prices and pending Environmental Protection Agency regulations also played a decisive role in the closures.
Now the communities of Pilsen and Little Village, home to Fisk and Crawford respectively, eye the 60- and 72-acre sites with mixed feelings. A 2002 Harvard School of Public Health study linked the plants to 41 premature deaths and 2,800 asthma attacks annually. As soon as neighborhood environmental organizations celebrated the facilities’ early closure they encountered a new challenge: How to build a future for the industrial sites that have helped define their communities for roughly a century.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel convened a task force in March to investigate potential reuse options for the site, but the privately owned land is ultimately Midwest Generation’s to sell. Plans for reuse have to grapple with historic preservation, environmental cleanup, and unemployment in a rapidly gentrifying area.
As coal plants around the country power down, what happens to these 132 acres in Chicago could have nationwide implications. After several months under consideration by the city and an ambitious team of community groups, the exhaust stacks of Fisk and Crawford still cast long shadows over the city’s southwest side.
“It’s changing the way the city does development in a community like ours,” said Kim Wasserman, coordinator for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO). “Conversations that have historically never happened are now happening.”
Instead of the city’s usual dropping in to build a new school only to vanish after the press conference, Wasserman said, officials have taken time to appreciate the complexity of the neighborhoods and the struggles they face. And previously adversarial parties have buried the hatchet in the name of productive discussions.
Activists scaled the stack at Fisk last year and unfurled a banner reading “QUIT COAL,” in what was perhaps the most visible incarnation of the area’s growing anxiety towards their industrial neighbors. LVEJO encouraged community members not to grow vegetables in soil because they suspected contamination, even offering “toxic tours” of the neighborhood’s environmental hazards—Crawford was a fixture on the tour route. Now Toxic Tour leaders and representatives from Midwest Generation sit across from one another in negotiations both have called collaborative and respectful.
“This is the first brownfield coal site that has engaged in this kind of process with the community,” said Jean Pogge, CEO of the Delta Institute, the Chicago–based non-profit leading the mayor’s task force. In Pilsen, public forums on the topic predate the task force’s formation by at least several months.
“A lot of people want to see more green space,” said Nelson Soza, executive director of Pilsen Alliance. “But they also want to see jobs. We don’t think that’s mutually exclusive.”
Soza’s organization conducted door-to-door interviews with hundreds of neighborhood residents earlier this year to find out their ideas for reuse. His results lined up with those from another survey conducted by PERRO, the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization.
PERRO’s survey respondents favored multi-use over single-use by a margin greater than six to one. Green space topped the list of preferred land uses with 37 percent of responses, while “jobs/industrial” received the next most votes at 27 percent.
Calls for housing were unanimously discounted early on, task force members said, due in part to zoning issues and the industrial environment of the sites. Neighborhood groups also worried housing proposals would exacerbate gentrification. Pilsen and Little Village are predominantly Latino communities and both have seen thousands of residents leave in recent years. Pilsen alone lost about one quarter of its Latino population between 2000 and 2010. The intervening years saw unemployment rise among a diluted Latino population, as the area’s thriving art scene attracted young white tenants.
Both neighborhoods are in a park-poor industrial corridor. While the future owners will ultimately determine the extent of green space onsite, the Delta Institute identified two water-edge locations at Crawford and one at Fisk that they deemed potentially suitable for public access to the canal. And early talks have targeted an underused parking lot off Cermak Road for a potential land transfer to the park district. But PERRO organizer Jerry Mead-Lucero said he hopes for even more public space.
Nearly all parties agreed the sites must provide jobs, from survey respondents to Mayor Emanuel. And community groups are adamant that those jobs come from a non-polluting employer. The plant closings represent 200 lost positions, which environmental groups hope can be replaced by light manufacturing and green jobs.
While no dangerous material will be stored onsite after the plants are closed, remediation is always an issue with former industrial sites. A legacy of contaminants typically follows decades of coal-fired electrical generation. The condition of the sites has not yet been determined, but will ultimately factor heavily into the cost of converting the land for public use.
The Fisk site’s history will persist long after the power shuts off. The original 1903 generation station once housed the world’s largest steam turbine. Designed for Samuel Insull, an aide to Thomas Edison, Fisk was a driving force in Chicago’s groundbreaking electrification. Edison’s signature still graces a guestbook inside the plant, but Insull’s heritage is waning. His State Line Generating Plant in Hammond, Indiana shut down earlier this year; along with Fisk and Crawford, it rounded out his local fleet of early 20th-century power plants.
Recommendations from PERRO include a permanent museum onsite and preservation efforts for the historic 1903 Fisk Generation Station. If preservationists win landmark designation, however, that could potentially bog down negotiations with buyers looking for a clean slate. Almost half of the site will remain tied up in easements from Commonwealth Edison, containing electrical grid infrastructure and peak-load generators, complicating matters further.
More than 100 coal plants have closed nationwide in the last three years, roughly one-sixth the total number of plants in the United States. An abundance of natural gas, tightening environmental regulations and campaigns from an increasingly unified clean energy movement have challenged the nation’s dominant source of electricity.
Industrial reinvention has emerged as a guiding principal for Midwestern development in the 21st century. The region’s stock of aging coal plants is large. Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin together are home to more than one-fourth of all coal plants in the country.
Coal plant sites have been given new life as parks, museums, and mixed-use developments from Texas to Germany. In Austin, a 9-year remediation effort by the city and its public utility company reclaimed the Seaholm Power Plant for retail, office, condo, and hotel space, as well as a 3-acre park. Though it burned natural gas and fuel oil instead of coal, Seaholm bears some similarities to Fisk. Its historic art deco architecture and remaining electrical operations were successfully integrated into the new development.
The site handled remediation well, too. It earned the first-ever EPA Reuse certification for unrestricted use of a PCB remediation site, as well as a Gold Medal in the environmental category of the 2005 Texas Council of Engineering Companies Engineering Excellence Awards.
“Whoever takes over these sites will have to work through public processes,” said Doug McFarlan, a Midwest Generation representative. “So I think it’s just good business for everyone to be transparent and open book.”
Work is far from over for the task force. As Midwest Generation courts potential buyers for the sites, the guidelines crafted by community groups will face a crucible. But consensus is strong between parties once known for their adversarial positions. Those involved hope the task force will be a model for community engagement, as well as a positive influence on the community in this time of transition. Southwest side residents like Soza see an unprecedented opportunity to remake their neighborhood’s industrial core in the image of the community that has grown for generations around it.
“We hope we can build something as historic as the Fisk plant when it first came in 1903,” he said.