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Image courtesy of the City of Chicago

Land for Chicago's future sustainable community encompasses 1,140 acres on Chicago's Southeast Side, including desolate land that was formerly a U.S. Steel site.

Massive new green development planned for abandoned U.S. Steel site

by Erika Brekke
Jan 14, 2009

Chicago city planners said this week they will soon submit a proposal to create a green community on old U.S. Steel land in South Chicago. They envision redeveloping more than 1,100 acres into a new sustainable neighborhood of green buildings, a new lakefront park, streetcars and bicycle paths.

“It’s going to attract different developers, technologies and a new population that is attracted to the green lifestyle,” said Marilyn Engwall, a city planner who has worked on the South Chicago plan since 2000. “Our goal is for it to be a healthy, vibrant place where people will want to live.”

The plan includes an existing low-to-moderate income neighborhood with only a single commercial strip. The second part of the site is 573 acres of desolate land, a former U.S. Steel site that Engwall describes as “one blank space with a lot of challenges on it.”

Before 2005, it was covered in a rock-hard, soil-like material known as “slag,” a nontoxic by-product of the steel-making process. Nothing could grow on the slag, which put a kink in the planners’ vision for a 17-acre lakeshore park.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources scientists resolved the issue by dredging tons of excess sediment from the Illinois River near Peoria and shipping it via barges to the future site of the park. Now almost three feet of river sediment acts as the entire area’s topsoil and plants are growing there.

But, Chicago’s plans are still in the very early stages: completion of the sustainable community is estimated to take between 20 and 30 years.

“This is not a small thing. It’s going to take some time,” Engwall said, citing the city’s shrinking planning department and the unstable economy as potential obstacles.

Chicago’s plan will be rated by the United States Green Building Council and is part of the Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for Neighborhood Development pilot program. The LEED Green Building Rating System, which was developed by the Council, is a national certification system for green building, design and construction. Participation in LEED’s various programs are voluntary.

According to Engwall, Chicago’s plan, known as the “South Chicago LEED Neighborhood Development Initiative,” is the most ambitious and largest plan of its kind in the lower 48 states, as it aims to transform the South Chicago parcel into a mixed-use neighborhood integrating eco-efficient design and smart growth principles with an emphasis on healthy living. The LEED for Neighborhood Development program, which includes 207 projects in the U.S., is a joint venture between the U.S. Green Building Council, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Congress for New Urbanism and was launched in 2007.

Now in its third year, the LEED for Neighborhood Development program is the country’s first national certification system for developing and designing green communities. It rates projects based on various criteria in a very detailed, long checklist including reduced automobile dependence, access to public spaces, energy efficiency in buildings and wastewater management.

The U.S. Green Building Council rates projects as either Silver, Gold or Platinum certified.

“Projects that pursue LEED for Neighborhood Development help Chicago stay great—and become greener—by locating within or very near previously developed areas, incorporating less-auto dependent development patterns, and including greener buildings,” said Jennifer Henry, a real estate sector manager at the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Engwall said she expects the South Chicago plan to become Silver LEED-certified sometime this spring after the U.S. Green Building Council committee reviews and rates the plan.

“We are in a great position. We are Chicago,” Engwall added.