Up to 20,000 modular homes, a plant to build them and a new “lakefront city” around it could rise on the site of, what Mayor Rahm Emanuel calls Chicago’s “industrial past”: the old U.S. Steel South Works plant.

After a lengthy bid process and months of negotiations, Emanuel and Emerald Living on Tuesday announced a “Purchase and Sale Agreement” that will allow the “green tech development company” to acquire the 440-acre lakefront site from U.S. Steel.

That triggers a five-month window for developers to conduct an “environmental review” of the massive site and close on the sale.

Local Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) says she’s “holding my breath” after similarly grand plans fell through on a site that has sat stubbornly vacant since the 1992 closing of the U.S. Steel South Works plant.

“They still don’t have a signed contract. We have a letter-of-intent….[But] environmental issues [could surface]…. So, anything could happen,” Garza said.

“We’ve been led down this path before. People who came before me [said], ‘Mariano’s is coming. [Former Aldermen] Sandi Jackson and John Pope. Everybody said, ‘They’re coming, they’re coming.’ Time and time again, our hopes were up high and the rug was taken out from under us.”

Still, Garza said this plan feels different.

Emerald Living—an international partnership between Barcelona Housing Systems (BHS) and WELink Group of Dublin, Ireland—has already lined up financing after a bid process conducted by real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield, the alderman said.

And in addition to building a “union” plant to manufacture modular homes built in 35 days where plant employees could afford to live, plans for the “New SouthWorks” include office, retail and recreational space that capitalizes on the extensive lakeshore frontage and spectacular views of the Chicago skyline.

The grand plan also includes boat slips, climbing walls, a wind-surfing dock, lakefront restaurants, extensive green space and a windmill farm along the breakwall to generate clean energy.

“When I met with Cesar [Ramirez Martinell] from Barcelona, he was like a kid in a candy store walking that property. He couldn’t believe the beauty and the majesty of it. He saw what it could be. I didn’t see that in the other bidders,” Garza said.

“It’s not gonna be $500,000 or $600,000 homes in a community where there’s a gate and you have to be buzzed in. It’s gonna be conducive to what was once here: a working class neighborhood that provides solid housing and good amenities for people from the South Side.”

Martinell, founder of Barcelona Housing Systems, could not be reached for comment.

A City Hall press release quoted him as saying, “This technology provides an industrial platform for large-scale housing construction, enabling rapid site assembly with high-quality materials, while promoting green technology, environmental sustainability and community living.”

Last year, a split between U.S. Steel and prominent Chicago developer Dan McCaffery killed a similarly ambitious plan to build a “new city” on the long-vacant lakefront site.

McCaffery’s plan called for 13,000 homes, 17.5 million square feet of commercial space and a marina with space for 1,500 boats.

Although the new plan is even more ambitious, Garza said she is confident that Barcelona Housing can succeed where McCaffery failed because the company took its time “to find out what people want here.”

What Southeast Side residents want most is hope, said Garza, whose father worked at South Works and served as president of United Steelworkers Local 65.

“U.S. Steel employed 23,000 men and women. Those people gave their blood, sweat and tears—and sometimes their lives to that plant,” Garza said.

“When the mill left, so did the stores. So did the bars. So did the restaurants. It was devastating….After 30 years of just sitting there with nothing, it means a lot to people to see something happen there.”

Peggy Salazar, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, said a “toxic neighborhood” that has long been Chicago’s environmental dumping ground desperately needs a “catalyst for change.”

“We want to see new development. We need some revitalization. Those concrete recyclers, those petcoke handlers, those manganese handlers—they don’t bring any type of revitalization. On the contrary, they’re blighting our community,” Salazar said.

“Every community needs an injection of new development every so often to keep it vital. And on the Southeast Side, we haven’t had anything.”

But she warned that local residents would demand a community benefits agreement that will guarantee jobs and job training for local residents and support for local schools and after-school programs.

Contributing: Mitch Dudek

A view of downtown Chicago from the old South Works site. | Sun-Times file photo