South Chicago LEED Neighborhood Development

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009
79th Street to 93rd Street

79th Street to 93rd Street

Sponsored by: City of Chicago, Department of Community Development

City of Chicago Informational PDF: South Chicago LEED Neighborhood Development Initiative

LEED Consultants: Farr Associates Architecture and Urban Design

By William Olson

As part of an effort to stimulate sustainable and equitable economic development in one of the more socioeconomically distressed areas of the region, the City of Chicago is sponsoring one of the largest sustainable neighborhood revitalization developments in the country. Consisting of 1,140 acres in the South Chicago neighborhood, the Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED ND) plan will serve as a guide to the city for sustainable redevelopment on the south side for the next 25 years.

Currently responsible for the redevelopment plan is City Planner Marilyn Engwall, who has been a part of the effort for nearly a decade. Engwell stresses the comprehensive nature of the redevelopment and the necessity to engage in sustainable community building. “This is a plan—a long range plan—and not a project,” she stated, adding, “This is an area that definitely needs development.”

Developed by the U. S. Green Building Council, LEED ND projects take the building standards of LEED and many of the hallmarks of new urbanism, and apply them to an entire area. In addition to requiring new homes in the South Chicago LEED ND to be certified as LEED Silver or better, the initiative incorporates LEED ND standards of easy access to transit, close walking distance to schools and parks, and the remediation of environmentally unsuitable sites. Plans exist for the integration of the three existing Metra stops in the neighborhood with an elaborate transit network reliant on the streetcar—a system that has already gained some traction and financing among local merchants. Whether this part of the plan will happen will take years to determine.

The importance of transit is underscored by the sheer size of the planning area. Encompassing acreage roughly the size of Chicago’s Loop, the redevelopment area is bounded by 79th Street and 93rd Street to its north and south, respectively, and extends easterly from Commercial Avenue to the shore of Lake Michigan. Comprising a large chunk of the plan is the former home of U.S. Steel aligning the lake—presently a brownfield unsuitable for development and an eyesore unseemly to local residents.

The redevelopment plan is two-pronged. In addition to the new construction that will populate the former steel site, urban infill of the existing neighborhood is planned as well. The development is, moreover, envisioned to draw a cross-section of mixed-income households into it. One of the first projects proposed, a 30-unit affordable housing program named South Chicago Courtyard Flats designed by Urban Works, Ltd., has been drawn up to consist of three flats with brick and wood façades as well as green roofs. Additional infill housing is still in the formative planning phase, while residential-over-retail concepts are planned after sufficient households exist to support new commercial development.

Improving the former steel site to a point suitable for development, has spurred an innovative approach to remediation. Transforming the 575-acre site, 100 acres of which is a giant landmass of slag–a byproduct of decades of steelmaking that resembles rock and maintains corrosive properties—will require an enormous amount of fresh topsoil. Reclaimed from waterways around the region and shipped via barge to South Chicago, the transplanted soil is a win-win strategy, as it saves the city huge sums of money and rids waterways battling decades of silt build-up. Part of the previously barren former steel site will become part of a 100-acre city park with lake frontage, providing future residents and visitors access to one of the region’s most coveted natural and recreational resources.

The city is generally going it alone with respect to funding, bringing private developers into the fold who share the city’s vision for the neighborhood. What is more, the city has a great deal of influence in seeing the tenets of sustainability incorporated into the plan as municipally supplied infrastructure, particularly within the undeveloped lakefront area of the site, will be indispensible to moving forward.

The primary roadblocks standing in the way of redevelopment effort are the battered housing market and recessionary economic climate. The city has been forced to scale back its timeline to reflect the current economic downturn which began in 2008, and has indicated that the importance and long-term viability of the plan renders it worth putting on hold until more economic certainty exists.

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