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We don’t want more warehouses, South Siders say

Critics also say some proposed developments aren’t getting a rigorous environmental review despite a new law designed to reduce pollution.

Shannon Glass and her husband Marty Gleason stand on the corner near a proposed warehouse development at 3900 S. Normal Ave. that they fear will bring more air pollution to an area already congested with truck traffic.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Shannon Glass and her husband Marty Gleason bought their Canaryville home more than six years ago because it was affordable and close to the neighborhood where Glass grew up.

As a third-generation South Sider, Glass is used to living near factories large and small, but a more recent and rapidly growing industry — big warehouses largely accommodating the growth of online shopping — is not something she can embrace.

There are at least five warehouse projects either in development or newly opened just a short drive from Glass’ house, including a proposal for a large development at 3900 S. Normal Ave.

She worries these developments are going to bring potentially hundreds of trucks into areas already populated with warehouses — the same Southwest Side neighborhoods that city health officials previously identified as having some of the worst air quality in Chicago.

“We already have a lot of truck traffic and just a lot of air quality issues that aren’t really ever addressed,” Glass said. “We don’t get any of the benefits.”

The proposed warehouse and another planned nearby at 1032 W. 43rd St. are the first to face a review under a new air pollution ordinance backed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and passed by the City Council in March. The ordinance has been held up by the mayor as her signature action to reduce the pollution burden for low-income communities.

But critics say the law is already falling short, citing two air pollution and traffic examinations ordered by the city they say appear to give a green light for the projects. The increase in truck-intensive warehouse developments exponentially increase pollution for some neighborhoods, they add.

Pause warehouse development, critics say

The sites have been given no city approvals yet, and it’s not clear how long the process to approve the developments will take, but critics are already weighing in.

More than a dozen environmental, health, community and civil rights groups wrote the city to ask for a pause in industrial permitting, including warehouse development, until the city can better explain how the process will be more rigorous under the new air ordinance.

Until a better environmental review process is under way, the city should hold off on approving warehouses, the groups say.

For instance, the Lightfoot administration has promised to back a “cumulative burden” pollution ordinance that takes into account all environmental and health elements of a community that already experiences a lot of pollution and health problems.

“We strongly request that the city desist from moving forward with these proposed warehouses and furthermore adopt a moratorium on all similar industrial permitting until it adopts a comprehensive framework for assessing and addressing disparities in environmental and related socioeconomic burdens within Chicago,” said the letter signed by Meleah Geertsma, a senior attorney for the environmental organization Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Lightfoot administration has shown a “failure to acknowledge and address whether and how these diesel truck facilities will cause or contribute to significant disproportionate environmental burdens in an already overburdened environmental justice community,” the letter added, using a term for low-income, often minority neighborhoods that are already living with environmental and health hazards.

Residents of New City, the community area that includes the Canaryville and Back of the Yards neighborhoods, are more than 60% Latino, 23% Black and about 13% white and have per capita income of less than $17,000 a year, according to census data. Multiple environmental maps, including the city’s own research, show the area to have a high concentration of health and environmental burdens.

The Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Respiratory Health Association, Illinois Environmental Council, Earthjustice and the National Housing Law Project are among the groups listed as supporting the demands of the letter.

In a statement to the Sun-Times, the city said its public health and transportation analysts “determined that both facilities’ proposed operations are relatively straightforward and neither would have a substantial impact on local air quality.”

The statement also nodded to the Lightfoot administration’s promise to take the longer view of environmental concerns. The statement added: “While the city currently has a thorough process to evaluate the impact of any proposed developments, we plan to build on this effort by developing a cumulative impact ordinance that addresses many of the broader concerns communicated in the public comments. The city is taking a more expansive look at impacts and existing conditions through an environmental justice lens.”

A proposed warehouse development at 3900 S. Normal Ave. will bring many more trucks each day to an already polluted area, health and environmental advocates say.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

But in an interview, Geertsma said city officials aren’t taking into consideration other burdens these communities already face and are working “with limited tools, having skipped over necessary groundwork.”

Specifically, an air emissions modeling report prepared by an outside firm and presented to the city concluded that the increased traffic around the two proposed warehouses wouldn’t exceed national standards set for limits on three types of pollution.

The city “cannot accept this myopic analysis as meeting its obligations to address environmental justice and recognize and abate disproportionate adverse impacts,” the letter to the city written by Geertsma noted.

For instance, common pollutants from diesel trucks need to be scrutinized, she said, citing a recent pollution review at the national level. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said it is reviewing its guidelines on fine particulate matter, often referred to as soot, that is released through diesel trucks and can get embedded deep into the lungs.

“The concept [of the ordinance] is right, but the nuts and bolts of it don’t provide our communities what we’ve been looking for,” said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. “This is a great example of what happens when you don’t work with the community to develop these things.”

A massive warehouse distribution site at 3501 S. Pulaski Road in Little Village opened in July and now being leased by Target has been at the core of a years-long controversy in Little Village.

Located at the site of a former coal-fired power plant the community demanded be shut down, the warehouse has been the target of protests by Wasserman’s group saying it could bring in hundreds of trucks in and out of the facility every day, adding to air pollution. Target has said its trucks will not cut through residential streets and will remain on Pulaski while heading to and from nearby Interstate 55.

Wasserman’s group was among community organizations that also supported the letter sent to the city earlier this month.

A 2020 map prepared by city planners shows more than 30 warehouse distribution sites with only three locations north of Roosevelt Road. To be sure, the Southwest Side, including parts of Bridgeport, New City and McKinley Park, is strategically located for such operations. The area is already largely zoned for industrial uses and located off major truck routes such as Interstates 90 and 55.

The two New City warehouse projects are being developed by a joint venture that includes The Missner Group of Des Plaines. Missner representatives declined to comment.

A warehouse development is slated for 3900 S. Normal Ave.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Logistics touted for city’s economic future

While Lightfoot has promised to improve air quality in Chicago, her economic development and planning officials have touted logistics as a key part of the city’s economic future.

Glass, who recently stood at a corner near the 3900 S. Normal site as dozens of trucks rumbled by on a weekday morning, wonders why the city can’t at least consider some green space or another type of business to throw into the mix.

“I understand why they want to put these in our neighborhood, but I want to know that they have a plan to address the environmental issues — and they’re not just putting these up to the detriment of our neighborhood,” Glass said. “It feels like a real lack of imagination — just one type of business.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.