By Edward McClelland
Last month, real estate developer Emerald Living scrapped its ambitious mixed-use plan for the site of South Works, the steel mill that operated on Chicago’s South Side for more than a century. The plan was going to include 20,000 new homes — essentially creating a new neighborhood on the 440 acres of weedy prairie that has grown desolate and derelict since South Works shut down in 1992. Twenty-six years later, the only remaining man-made feature on the site is a monumental ore wall alongside the boat slip where freighters used to tie up and drop off their cargo.
While the brownfield left behind by South Works may be a classic Rust Belt story, other Rust Belt communities have overcome the toxic legacy of industry, and found new uses for polluted sites.
What to do with the site now? There had been plans before. A Solo Cup factory, but that fell through a decade ago. Then, in 2016, Chicago developer McCaffery Interests abandoned its Chicago Lakeside project, which would have brought more than 13,000 homes and 17.5 million square feet of shops and offices to the brownfield. But McCaffery pulled the plug without explanation.
Perhaps Emerald Living’s announcement for backing out last month has the answer.
“The industrial heritage of this site presented significant challenges which, despite best endeavors by all, made it impossible to conclude the deal with U.S. Steel in its current format,” the company said in a statement.
Translation: The soil is still contaminated, 26 years after the mill shut down.
South Chicago made a devil’s bargain: South Works provided the neighborhood with a century of prosperity, but it now has to face the hard fact that U.S. Steel left it with a piece of land that can never again provide economic benefit. While this may be a classic Rust Belt story, other Rust Belt communities have overcome the toxic legacy of industry, and found new uses for polluted sites.
In Flint, the Chevy in the Hole plant left behind toxins that will take centuries to dissolve: arsenic, chromium, mercury, lead. In 2012, Flint came up with a solution: contain the pollution with an 18-inch soil cap planted with native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees. Wild lupine, black-eyed Susan, showy goldenrod, ironweed, red osier dogwood, elderberry, and tamarack are among the all-American plants on the list. Their roots absorb rainwater, preventing it from filtering through to the polluted dirt and carrying toxins to the Flint River.
In Lackawanna, New York, outside Buffalo, the old Bethlehem Steel mill is now the site of Steel Winds, a system of wind turbines capturing breezes off Lake Erie. Each of the 14 turbines generates 2.5 kilowatts a day — enough to power 1,000 homes in Lackawanna. Steel Winds pays the city $20,000 per turbine, per year. They don’t generate as much money as the mill, which funded 75 percent of the municipal budget, but they’re more lucrative than a 1,600-acre brownfield sitting idle.
Like Steel Winds, South Works is also located on the shore of a Great Lake, an ideal spot for wind turbines. Wind currently provides 5.7 percent of the energy in Illinois, but most of the wind farms are in the prairie counties, where they generate $30.6 million a year in property taxes, which are a boon to the small towns that host them. A wind farm at South Works could provide construction jobs and tax revenue for South Chicago.
Like Steel Winds, South Works is also located on the shore of a Great Lake, an ideal spot for wind turbines. A wind farm at South Works could provide construction jobs and tax revenue for South Chicago.
The Waterfront Mall in Homestead, Pennsylvania, has a story very similar to South Works. It sits on the site of the old U.S. Steel Homestead Works, which was once the most massive mill in the world, producing steel that built the Brooklyn Bridge and the Apollo rockets. The Homestead Works closed during the steel crisis of the 1980s, and the site was abandoned until an architecture professor named David Lewis looked at a map and realized it sat within Pittsburgh’s urban sprawl. Lewis sold developers on the idea of an outdoor mall.
Just across the lake from South Works, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, is Harbor Shores, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course built atop an old Superfund site, which once housed a foundry, an appliance factory, and an airplane parts manufacturer, as well as a city dump. All the businesses closed during the Rust Belt recession of the 1980s, and for the next 20 years, the land was 600 acres of weeds and garbage. Preparing it for its next life involved removing 117,000 tons of solid waste and concrete, plus 20,000 tons of contaminated soil. Even then, the land was topped with a foot of sand, so water does not filter through the post-industrial dirt and into the water table, but instead into man-made wetlands. The golf course has hosted the Senior PGA Championship, and is the centerpiece of a complex that includes condos, restaurants, and a waterfront hotel. Bonus: that golf course isn’t being built on a plot of undeveloped land.
So there is a future for South Works, but politicians, developers, and planners are going to have to give up the idea of building an entirely new neighborhood on the lakefront. Sorry Chicago, but it’s not happening.
Belt Magazine is not-for-profit and member-supported. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the people of the Rust Belt, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.