Brownfields, Greener Pastures

Oct. 3, 2016
Exploring brownfield redevelopment in Chicago & beyond

About the author: Sara Samovalov is associate editor for W&WD. Samovalov can be reached at [email protected] or 847.954.7966.

It was the height of the “Roaring 20s” in Chicago. Prohibition was in full swing. On his way to becoming the leader of an infamous criminal empire, gangster Al Capone purchased a home on the city’s South Side. Seven miles away, a firehouse was built at 2358 S. Whipple St. in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. It would remain in use for 81 years.

Today the firehouse sits empty. Up to 4 ft of standing water fills the basement. Paint—likely lead-based—flakes from the tin ceiling.

The firehouse at 2358 S. Whipple is a brownfield, defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.” The firehouse was in operation long before regulations regarding disposing chemical and petroleum products were enforced—or even existed. It is likely contaminated. And so it has been vacant for more than a decade.

In the future, however, 2358 S. Whipple might be repurposed into a commercial kitchen, an urban indoor farm or a commercial composting operation. It is one of many brownfields in Little Village that might, in time, become central to the community; at least, that is the hope of two organizations that recently came together to create a strategy for their redevelopment.

United by Brownfields

It took one of Little Village’s most notorious brownfields to unite the Delta Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit, and the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), a community group.

In 2012, both organizations took part in a task force to brainstorm reuse opportunities for the Fisk and Crawford coal plant sites, which LVEJO fought for years to close as their emissions caused premature deaths and asthma attacks among residents. 

One revelation from the organizations’ experience on the task force: The Crawford coal plant was only the tip of the iceberg.

“A coal plant is a very large, complicated brownfield site, but there were many of these brownfield sites in Little Village besides the Crawford coal plant site,” said Margaret Renas, senior manager and environmental engineer for Delta. 

And so Delta and LVEJO embarked on a two-year project to investigate reuse opportunities for other brownfield sites in Little Village. There were plenty to investigate: Little Village, a predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American enclave on Chicago’s West Side, has had ties to industry for more than a century. It was once home to paper towel factories, casting factories, machine shops, steel manufacturers and innumerable other industries. Now, their remnants blight the neighborhood’s southern border.

Using a combination of Delta’s proprietary marketability scoring tool, which takes into account site characteristics such as ownership, potential redevelopment incentives and environmental conditions, and feedback from Little Village residents, Delta and LVEJO narrowed their list of 62 vacant property and brownfield sites to just 10—including the Whipple St. firehouse—identifying potential redevelopment opportunities for each. 

But the real work is just beginning.

Turning Brown to Green

Before a brownfield property can be redeveloped, it must be assessed and cleaned up. To assess a site, “the first thing you do is conduct a Phase 1 Environmental Assessment,” Renas explained—a sort of “research project” aimed at determining whether or not a site might be polluted. This includes looking at historical data, such as Sandborn fire insurance maps, which provide information on building use as far back as the 1860s.

“You might have a vacant property sitting on a corner, and, for the last 30 years, it’s been vacant. Everybody might assume it’s always been vacant,” Renas said. “But if you look back, there could have been some type of business, like a chemical company, back in the 1920s. Or there could have been something related to the oil and gas industry. These are industries that typically may leave pollutants behind when they close, and you would never know that today.”

Other pieces of the Phase 1 puzzle include scouring environmental databases; conducting a site walkthrough to look for evidence of underground storage tanks, chemical spills and other hazards; and interviewing people with knowledge of the property, such as area residents.

If pollution is suspected on the property after the Phase 1 assessment, a Phase 2 site investigation is conducted. Soil, sediment, and groundwater samples are collected and analyzed. 

The results of the Phase 2 assessment help guide a brownfield site’s remedial action plan—a road map to how the site will be cleaned, and to what extent. For example, a site slated to become residential homes will be held to more stringent cleanup standards than would a site destined to become a commercial business.

Remediation techniques vary from site to site. If chemicals are concentrated in the soil, there are a variety of techniques from which to choose. Some are “as simple as digging [the soil] up and disposing of it, so the chemicals in the soil don’t continue to leach into the surface water and groundwater,” said Paul Gruber, former president of Environmental Resources Management’s Florida operation and member of the National Ground Water Assn.’s Groundwater Protection and Management subcommittee.

“There are a lot of vapor extraction techniques, bioremediation technologies and fixation technologies. The treatment options depend on the type of chemicals that are in the ground,” Gruber said. Because chemical contaminants at sites can vary from heavy metals to chlorinated or long-chain hydrocarbons and beyond, “You require somebody with a broad range of engineering skills to properly design the water treatment facilities to clean up a brownfield site.”

Brownfield sites in Illinois have the option to enroll in the Illinois Site Remediation Program, which enables the Illinois EPA (IEPA) to review plans and guide the remediation process. At the end of the process, IEPA issues a “no further remediation” or “NFR” letter, which attests that no further remediation is needed and the site can be used as intended.

Cleaning the Water

Water quality issues are a key part of the brownfield remediation process. 

“I would say most brownfield projects have some relationship to protecting water,” said Ken Brown, a consultant who works with local governments in communities across the country on brownfield projects. 

“Waterfront properties in the old days were places where industry, and oftentimes heavy industry, was located. Now, those areas are prime real estate,” he said. “Think about Lake Michigan near Chicago; the Willamette River in Portland; the Ohio River in Cincinnati; Lake Ontario in Rochester.”

As a result, “There’s a big move to look at green infrastructure techniques to manage storm water, particularly in waterfront redevelopment projects,” Brown said. Think green roofs, cisterns for reusing storm water or rainwater, porous pavement and bioswales. 

Even when brownfields are not located on the waterfront, they still face issues with runoff and groundwater infiltration. In Chicago, thanks to a 1997 ordinance, citizens are forbidden from installing groundwater wells, which makes brownfield groundwater cleanup in non-waterfront sites less critical: “The whole focus there is preventing contaminants in groundwater from reaching surface water, because once it gets into surface water that has impacts to recreational users, to water intakes from municipal treatment plants, all sorts of things like that,” Gruber said. 

In a rural area, however, where many residents rely on groundwater for their potable water supply, “It’s increasingly critical to clean up the brownfield sites because these sites have the potential to impact drinking water supplies much more than they might in an urban setting,” Gruber said. “The big issue in a rural setting is many folks may not treat the water that they get either through surface water or groundwater supplies, and they ingest it or use it directly.” 

Including the Community

A brownfield redevelopment project is a matrix of intention, desire and need. Property owners want a sale. Lenders want a return on investment. Environmental consultants want to ensure a property is clean. All too often, one group vital to the redevelopment process is lost in the shuffle: those who live in the community and whose livelihood depends on what a brownfield might become.

Kimberly Wasserman, director of organizing and strategy for LVEJO, encountered this phenomenon during the group’s campaign to shut down the coal plants: “Major decisions were being made about our community, and our community members [felt] like, ‘One meeting is not enough to ask us what we think!’” she said.

Consequently, Delta and LVEJO made a concerted effort to include community members in every step of the Little Village brownfield redevelopment process. Community members mapped brownfields, talked to other Little Village residents, attended meetings and suggested community-centric redevelopment ideas.

The neighborhood’s many street vendors suggested converting brownfields into commercial kitchen spaces. Gardeners, farmers and local restaurateurs proposed composting facilities.

“Instead of us telling the community, ‘This is what we think you need,’ we’re very intentional in the community telling us what it is that they needed,” Wasserman said. “Once we were able to make a lot of these connections, it was fascinating to see these ideas bubble up, and the interest of the community to want to be part of the conversation.”

Making Plans

There may be a long road ahead when it comes to Little Village’s brownfields. While many sources of private and public sector funding exist for brownfield assessment and cleanup—including grants and loans from EPA’s Brownfields Program, state funding and tax incentives—the costs associated with redeveloping a brownfield can present significant barriers.

“If the real estate market isn’t great in a certain area, and if the cleanup costs are high, it makes it very difficult to redevelop a property in that area. Basically, you need some kind of economic assistance,” Brown said.

Nevertheless, Delta and LVEJO have taken the first valuable steps in transforming the industrial vestiges of this vibrant community. Community members are in the process of identifying and visiting other composting sites and commercial kitchens in the city in the hopes that they might develop a business plan for these spaces in the future—hopefully within the next few years.

“We don’t have the luxury of living out in community areas where you have virgin, pristine, open land,” Wasserman said. “We live in a former industrialized community that is looking to get deindustrialized. As a community that’s fought so hard for environmental justice, brownfields are a reality in our world.”

About the Author

Sara Samovalov

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