Brownfields: Emptying Them Out Is Just The First Step

The Plant Takes Root in the Stockyards from The Plant Chicago on Vimeo.

Long-abandoned factories have scarred the Midwest landscape for generations. Tens of  thousands sit vacant across the region, the tally growing by the day as companies shut more plants down. There may be as many as one million such properties across the United States. Some spaces are now being used in innovative ways, but there are huge challenges to renovating these sites. Changing Gears reporter Niala Boodhoo in Chicago takes a look at what’s involved in taking these places apart – and in putting them back together.


On the edge of the Old Stockyards on the South side of Chicago, John Edel is in the process of converting his second abandoned factory. He’s not a famous industrialist, or a millionaire. It’s just how he feels he can help the city.

Signs that still hang all over factory make it clear what what the former meatpacking plant once was: “Meat Dip. Hand Wash.” There’s no question of what was packed – go upstairs to the smoker, and the smell of bacon is still strong.

“They processed hams, bacon, they smoked turkeys and cooked turkeys in other ways,” said Edel, as he walked through a darkened room that still had the original stainless steel doors attached. “They made corned beef when it was Saint Patrick’s Day.”

Plant employees worked nonstop in the four-level building for 85 years, but it’s been empty for the past four years. That means it fits the government definition of a brownfield – which doesn’t have to be a factory – it can be as small as a gas station.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors says Chicago has nearly 3,000 acres of brownfield sites. Ohio has nearly three times as many.

Edel’s plan is to remake half of the 95,000-square-foot building into a vertical, indoor plant and fish farm. The idea is a symbiotic system called aquaponics, where the fish waste fertilizes the rest the farm. He calls it “The Plant”.
“Literally, we’re using everything but the squeal, as they say here in the Stockyards,” said Edel. “The idea here at the
Plant is nothing leaves the building, except food.”

The potential for these kind of buildings are enormous. But first, they have to be taken apart.

Emptying them out
The sounds of an auctioneer bidding off pieces of stamping equipment were all that remained earlier this month of the former Chrysler Twinsburg stamping facility near Youngstown, Ohio.

The plant made metal parts for sport utility vehicles until it was closed because of Chrysler’s bankruptcy last year.
Canadian-based Maynards Industries ran the sale. Basically, Maynard’s is a liquidation company whose its job is to empty out the insides of these factories.

The Twinsburg sale is the first of five car plant auctions Maynards is doing in Michigan and California — all within the next three weeks. Maynards bought the entire facility for $45.5 million, after Chrysler failed to find a buyer for it.

“For Twinsburg, primarily the value was in the transfer presses and all the stamping presses,” said Taso Sofikitis, president of Maynards’ U.S. division.  “When we acquired that facility, we sold pretty much the high valued assets privately.”

The rest of the materials went to auction last week. Now they have to figure out what to do with the building. It’s unusual for Maynard’s to buy a building outright, like it did with the Twinsburg plant – often, the company is contracted just to empty out factories. I

In the case of the this plant, Sofikitis said they would try to see if there are other manufacturers that would want it, or use it for storage space, but it’s more likely to just be torn down. “Realistically, with the size of these facilities, typically what happens is a demo and a redevelopment of the land,” he said.

Governments and Brownfields
Even when governments step in, it can take decades for the land to be used again. At the site of a former International Harvester plant, in the West Pullman area of Chicago, the sound of crickets chirping intermingle with city sounds of sirens and the Metra train. Until July, this land sat empty for 30 years. 

Federal government incentives played a major role in power company Exelon Corp.’s transformation of the site from a brownfield into the largest urban solar plant facility in the country.

“There were some hazardous materials on the site, some asbestos, old basements and subbasements and basements which represented a danger, garbage, weeds,” said Tom O’Neill, a senior vice-president with the company. “It was classic urban blight.”

O’Neill helped turn this land into a solar plant that has attracted international interest. Now, just as on people’s rooftops, there are sleek blue panels everywhere – except this is a field of thousands. A Garmin GPS system positions each one to catch as many UV rays as possible.

Since July, these 40 acres have been feeding 10 megawatts of solar power into the electrical grid – enough to power about 1,500 homes.

Cleanup and construction cost Exelon about $60 million. O’Neill said the public utility wouldn’t have put that money in if not for the federal subsidies – some from the stimulus plan – that helped fund the project. While it was being renovated, Exelon hired more than 200 construction workers at the site, in Chicago’s 34th Ward, under Alderman Carrie Austin.

“I believe Exelon’s project has given us an opportunity to show that there is still land available out here,” said Austin, who said the project has brought some much-needed attention to Chicago’s South Side. “It is still visible, manufacturing land that could be utilized out on the far South side.”

Visitors from as far away as Germany have come to check out the site, which is also in the flight path of many planes landing at Chicago’s Midway International Airport.

A far more ambitious project is planned for a  huge swath of land stretching from Lake Michigan on Chicago’s far Southeast side – the former U.S. Steel South Works plant, which was shut in 1992. Last week, Chicago’s City Council finally approved Mayor Daley’s request for $98 million for the first phase of the South Works Plan, which hopes to transform the 560 acres into public spaces, homes, shops and medical facilities.

The Plant
Back at the former meatpacking plant, Edel is financing the renovation all on his own.

He took a small mortgage to buy the property. Just as Edel did with another building about a mile away, the renovation will be done in stages. It will be funded by the other half of the building, which Edel plans to rent out to food producing companies.

The other building, the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, has been in operation for three years, with 16 tenants that do light manufacturing like bicycle frame building. Edel said that building turns a healthy profit.

The Plant is what Edel’s realtor called a “strip and rip” — the building was valued mostly based on the metal inside. In this case, the steel and copper meant Edel bought it for $525,000 in July.

Edel doesn’t have a business background. His college degree was in art, and his previous career was in virtual set design for video games and television. He just said he’s always loved old industrial buildings.

Based on his past experience, he knows it will be a long process to get the building back to life.

“This area, the stockyards, is really what built Chicago,” said Edel, as he stands in the former kitchen, which he hopes will be rented out by an artisanal baker. “We as a city owe a great debt to this area. One of my personal goals is to try to get those jobs back.”

Edel’s first tenant – a Kambucha fermented tea brewing company – moves in next week.


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