U.S. Steel South Works

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

Over most of the 20th century, approximately 5.5 square miles (3520 acres) of land have been added to the city of Chicago by means of infill into Lake Michigan. In contrast to much of Chicago’s historical annexations, most of this land was added as a public amenity, an asset for the city to increase access to the lake, multi-modal transportation infrastructure, or open park land. Similarly, almost none of it was added for residential purposes. Since much of this land was added before environmental regulations were enforced, today we are faced with a variety of edge and surface conditions, some with rather inauspicious beginnings: Lake Michigan was once regarded, by some, as simply the most convenient spot to dispose of industrial waste.

Jutting from the Lake in the neighborhood of South Chicago, split between the 7th and 10th wards, sits a massive (approximately 573 acres) slab of this infill known as South Works. Formerly home to the U.S. Steel facilities that produced much of the steel frame structures supporting Chicago’s skyline, South Works is now a deserted slag plinth, stretching from 79th Street to the mouth of the Calumet River near 92nd Street, and divided nearly in half by an east-west oriented shipping canal. Most of the land sits several feet above grade, and is formed by layers of slag, a byproduct of steel production, poured into Lake Michigan as more land was needed. It was built by the labor of nearly four generations of workers from the surrounding neighborhoods.

U.S. Steel once employed nearly 20,000 people at this facility, but began downsizing its workforce in the mid-80s, eventually closing the doors in 1992. The site is now bereft of the many buildings and machines that once packed the area. What remains are building foundations, half-paved, half-dirt roads circumnavigating the site, and two enormous concrete and masonry ore walls parallel to the canal, where mountains of iron ore were once stored after arriving by barge.

The post-industrial decimation of the surrounding communities is a familiar story in the Rust Belt. What was once a thriving area for immigrant families getting a start in Chicago has largely become a hollow shell for the remaining families rooted in the South Works legacy. U.S. Steel still owns many of the residential lots in the adjacent areas of South Chicago that currently sit vacant, with nothing but the “No Trespassing” sign to acknowledge the presence of a community outside its boundaries. The continued presence of these lots, unavailable for development, further contributes to the stagnation of the immediate neighborhood outside of South Works.

After the plant closing, U.S. Steel put up for sale the land that makes up the South Works site, and became partners with the developers Westrum Development CompanyMcCaffery Interests, and Lubert Adler to form Southworks Development LLC. (In what follows, “Southworks” refers to the developers, and “South Works” to the site.) Westrum is a Philadelphia-based, high-end residential community developer. McCaffery is the Chicago-based developer of Niketown and similar commercial projects around the country; Lubert Adler is a real estate investment firm that pulled out of the South Works project this spring, following the meltdown of the real estate market.

Southworks Development LLC hired a design team made up of Skidmore Owings and Merrill(SOM) and Sasaki Associates, two firms experienced in planning mega-projects around the world. Sasaki recently worked on the 2008 Beijing Olympics master plan, while SOM has a particularly intimate relationship with the superblock planning of Chicago’s South Side as master planners and architects for projects such as Lake Meadows and Stateway Gardens. The plan put together by SOM/Sasaki has already won awards from both local and national chapters of the American Institute of Architects, as well as the praises of local politicians such as 7th Ward Alderman Sandi Jackson. Additionally it has been selected by the U.S. Green Building Council as a pilot project for the LEED Neighborhood Development certification.

Projects like South Works are known as Planned Developments, defined by the city’s zoning guide as “a development scheme for a large, multi-lot area that is usually being developed by one party. The developer negotiates with the Planning Department to create a final plan, which becomes a binding legal document upon passage by the City Council and replaces the zoning regulations on the property.” Other planned developments include the nearly completed Lakeshore East area of downtown and the 170-acre Ryerson Steel site adjacent to Pullman, but there are none that provide precedence for a planned development at the scale of South Works.

The developers of South Works, who refer to the area as a neighborhood called “Lakeside,” want blanket 20-40 year Planned Development approval for the entire site. However, the Planning Department would prefer that it be broken into four or five distinct areas for separate approval. To make the project financially feasible, the developers are pushing for up to 30,000 residential units in a mix of low- mid- and high-rise buildings, while the Planning Department would prefer a much lower density with about 5-6,000 units. The average price for a home in Lakeside is advertised as $250,000. South Chicago’s population is 38,596, with a median household income of $26,149. These disparities point to an implied disregard for the needs of the communities surrounding South Works.

Claretian, a non-profit affordable housing developer in South Chicago, says its main concern is assuring that there is an affordable housing presence in the plan, but because the projected completion is so far off, they focus on addressing the staggering number of foreclosures in the community—currently upwards of 500 in South Chicago alone. Claretian, along with the Housing TIF Taskforce and the Chamber of Commerce Planning and Development Committee, is part of the South Chicago Advisory Committee (SCAC). One of the main functions of the SCAC has been setting up community meetings for Southworks Development LLC to present plans and proposals in public gatherings. Likewise, SCAC intends to be a part of negotiations with the developers throughout the planning process.

One of the biggest challenges in turning this area into usable residential land will be building an urban infrastructure on a substrate of slag, building foundations, crushed concrete, and other industrial detritus. Currently, the majority of the site has a minimal cover of topsoil. One innovative solution to this dilemma was carried out in 2004 with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources “Mud to Parks” program. When environmental concerns prompted the dredging of Lake Peoria (168 miles downstream from Chicago) to remove built-up silt, scientists proposed to transport the dredged material upstream to U.S. Steel, where it would be spread in the hopes of creating usable topsoil. The project resulted in the transport of 100,000 tons of mud, covering about 30 acres in two to three feet of central Illinois soil, capable of supporting native vegetation. The South Works area utilized for this project is part of the approximately 100 acres along the lakefront that has been deeded to the Chicago Parks District for use as a public park.

Another innovative plan was developed in 2003, when the Virginia-based landscape architect and design team D.I.R.T. (Design Investigations Reclaiming Terrain) Studio was hired by the City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development to prepare a schematic design for the remediation and redevelopment of South Works. With a specialization in the remediation of toxic and brownfield landscapes, D.I.R.T. Studio, who also prepared the feasibility study and schematic design for the recently opened Stearns Quarry Park in Bridgeport, proposed a plan for “incremental processes of transformation.” This included, in their words, a “dirt farm forming the remediated groundwork for mixed use,” significant hands-on public amenities for the existing South Chicago neighborhood, such as larger scale gardens and sites of historical investigation, and a large area designated for mixed industrial and manufacturing facilities.

At the time of the D.I.R.T. Studio design, 280 acres of the southern portion of South Works were owned by the Solo Cup Company, which was developing a new manufacturing plant that would employ up to 1000 workers. The land was remediated by the City and ground was broken in 2002, but plans were later scrapped when Solo decided instead to invest in existing facilities. Southworks Development LLC negotiated the purchase of this parcel of land in 2007, but the contract to purchase expired as of December 2008. Since then, there has been almost no progress made on city approval, and the speculative real estate market—upon which the feasibility of much of this development perches—has imploded. Despite these setbacks, and faced with potential for years of similar delays and setbacks, the city has no intentions to take over the site.

When confronted with planning projects of this size and magnitude, it can be hard to imagine what a more community-based and inclusive approach might be. The plans for South Works/Lakeside have projected completion dates in the 20-40 year range. They do not speak to the immediate issues facing the surrounding communities, much less the forgotten chapters of labor history rooted in this now desolate land. While pre-development of the site is underway (or nearly complete in the case of re-routing Highway 41, a main north-south artery running by the site), this does little to assuage the continued marginalization of many areas of Southeast Chicago.

Despite these circumstances, there are efforts toward development that is both sustainable and led by the community. From 2005 to 2007, the South Chicago Planning Committee developed a Quality-of-Life and Arts-in-Action plan in conjunction with Local Initiatives Support Corporation(LISC)/Chicago’s New Communities program. This plan envisions over 40 smaller projects, many underway, that emphasize development around existing neighborhood institutions and aim to put community leaders at the helm of South Chicago’s slow growth eastward into the Southworks site. One Arts-in-Action plan was the implementation of a yearlong series of arts-based programming called “Art-Attacks,” resulting in many temporary exhibitions as well as an installation along the perimeter fencing of South Works. Another ambitious project is the “Bush Homes by the Lake,” an initiative to infill 80 city-owned vacant lots in the area of South Chicago known as Bush. With Claretian Associates as one of the main developers and Landon Bone Baker as their architects, many of these will be affordable homes as well as LEED certified.

At a smaller scale, the Beverly-based apiarist Greg Fischer began raising bees on the Park District-owned portion of South Works earlier this year. He uses the honey he collects there to produce mead. Lakefront spots like South Works and Ogden Dunes, where he also keeps bees, are ideal mostly because of their large numbers of wildflowers. Though beekeeping provides few jobs and generates minimal capital, it is nonetheless an inspiring possibility. In the face of a mammoth project likely to be stalled and delayed for many years to come, and with plans so obscured by marketing pitches and fancy renderings, it is difficult for people to find a place where they feel empowered to do what is important to them. Raising bees, growing healthy soil, and educating a community on the verge of losing its historical connection to the area all seem like solutions that have the potential to revitalize an existing region. Hopefully this kind of work and action can inspire growth into South Works that is controlled by the people who live in the area, both now and in the future. ◊


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s