Ozingas still trying to sway Southeast Siders on massive underground warehouse
The family that owns the namesake cement company has spent almost two years trying to sell the idea of a 6 million-square-foot space under former steel mill land.
The Ozinga family, known for its namesake cement business, has spent almost two years trying to sell Southeast Side residents on the benefits of a proposed 6 million-square-foot underground warehouse development, but some community members are still skeptical that it would be environmentally safe and a boon for the area.
One of the biggest concerns about the project known as the Invert is that it will require a yearslong excavation of limestone at the former Republic Steel site along the Calumet River. That, residents say, is an end run around Chicago’s ban on mining. And they think the goal is to provide material for the family’s cement business.
In fact, Steve King, chief executive of the Invert, said he is having the same conversations with City Hall.
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Even though the Invert is not even close to applying for construction permits, King said he is assuring City Hall that the limestone would not be processed in Chicago and will be hauled away, likely on a barge, by another company.
“The city has been pretty clear that it cannot be processed in the city of Chicago,” King said in an interview.
The project, he said, is not planned by the Ozinga company but, rather, a separate venture backed by the family that includes other investors. Internal engineering studies show the excavation — several hundred feet underground — can be done safely, he said.
That explanation is not flying with longtime South Side resident Marie Collins-Wright, who said she’s concerned about the blasting on a polluted site right by the river.
“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” she said in an interview. “Dynamite and mine under our water table? How many disasters can happen at one time?”
The Invert opened a community engagement office in January 2021. On Wednesday, King and his staff held a presentation, billed as an open house, to answer community questions at St. Francis de Sales High School. The event is expected to be the first of several.
“We’re trying to do this development differently,” King said. “Developers don’t typically open engagement centers.”
At the open house, just over 30 attendees politely listened to King run through a presentation about the Invert.
Just before the event, Maria Maynez, a youth organizer with the community group Alliance of the Southeast, stood outside St. Francis with seven other activists holding signs that said “Ozinga No mining in our backyard” and “No more sacrifice zones.” Asked if there is anything the developer could do to win her over, Maynez said she didn’t think so.
King points to redevelopment of brownfield land to create hundreds of construction jobs and even more permanent jobs. The underground space can be used for storage, data centers, light manufacturing and other uses. It would take more than a decade to build.
But despite talking to hundreds — if not thousands — of residents, King still has work to do to win over community members.
King said the developer’s studies will show the safety of the project, and he vows that there will be no adverse environmental impact. The noise from the blasts will not be heard above ground, according to King. And he said preliminary results of an internal air study — not yet made public — show that emissions will not contribute to the already poor air quality of the area.
Southeast Side residents are particularly concerned about pollution, as the area suffers from some of the dirtiest air in the city. A health-impact study conducted around the proposed opening of the relocated General Iron car-shredding operation just south of the proposed Invert site was cited by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s public health officials when they decided to deny the permit for that operation. The scrap metal operation’s owner is appealing.
King has heard many complaints and said he’s mindful. Aspects of the Invert plan have changed, including a larger solar farm above ground that will serve the community, he said.
The developer’s air quality study is required under an ordinance sponsored by Lightfoot that passed last year and is aimed at addressing air pollution from new development.
The concept of underground commercial space was introduced decades ago in Kansas City by businessman Lamar Hunt, former owner of the Kansas City Chiefs football team.
Initially wanting to begin construction this year, King said he’s committed to seeing the project done and welcomes scrutiny.
“Permits are a long way away,” King said. “We’re OK with that.”
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.