Decision on historic Chicago River site is too important to be made in a silo

The Damen silos beg for conversation on how they could be reused in a higher, better and more public way.

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The view of the Damen Silos in 2016 from a drone camera.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker should hold off on selling the Damen silos site along the Chicago River until the public can weigh in on the location’s future.

Courtesy of @devodare_chicago

The state’s decision to sell the Damen Silos, the historic river edge site at 29th Street and Damen Avenue, should be the cause of celebration and excitement.

Imagine the reuse possibilities for the highly visible site along the South Branch of the Chicago River. It could be one of the city’s most intriguing destinations, with the silos opened and placed into public service and the surrounding 23 acres refashioned into parkland.

Oh, but if only the state thought along those lines. Instead, the Pritzker administration put the site out to bid and accepted a $6.52 million offer — an amount double the required minimum bid amount — from MAT Limited Partnership, a company owned by asphalt manufacturer Michael Tadin Jr.

Tadin hasn’t publicly announced plans for the property.

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But many in McKinley Park and surrounding communities, along with river activists and a growing group of Chicago architects and planners, want the state to halt the deal and let the public have a voice in determining the site’s future.

“Simply put, the sale of public land deserves public comment,” the non-profit McKinley Park Development Council and a coalition of groups wrote in a letter sent Monday to Gov. J.B. Pritzker. “We seek to ensure transparency in public land transactions and to preserve as much riverfront property as possible for public benefit.”

And they’re right. For the state to outright sell the silos to industry without input from the community is a mistake. This special site begs for a conversation on how it could be reused in a higher, better and more public way.

Communities should decide silos’ future

The state’s sale of the site to an industrial concern is a potential throwback to a time when there was a less-enlightened view of the river, particularly the waterway’s South Branch.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, slaughterhouses, lumberyards and other industrial uses were allowed to line-up along the South Branch, making the river part sewer/part alley while physically cutting it off from the surrounding communities.

The Damen silos were built by the old Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1907. The State of Illinois later bought the facility to store road-making materials.

But over the 115 years since the facility was built — and as many of these pollution-prone factories along the waterway went out of business — we began to see the river as a recreational and environmental asset rather than a place to locate industry.

That’s why the decision to sell the Damen silos to MAT Limited Partnership without a meaningful public discussion to determine the site’s future is wrong.

In addition to the letter the McKinley Park area community groups sent Monday to Pritzker, a coalition of more than 80 Chicago architectural professionals, including the internationally recognized architect Jeanne Gang, wrote to the governor last month asking him to reconsider the sale.

“In the Loop and on the Northside, the river has become a beacon for restoration and economic redevelopment, while the communities of the Southside have been largely excluded from these benefits,” they wrote.

“We urge the State to withdraw from the sale of this land, and to give the communities of McKinley Park, Pilsen and Bridgeport the right to decide its future for themselves.”

A better way

The Illinois Department of Central Management Services said the state is required to sell the property to the highest bidder.

But the group led by the McKinley Park Development Council wants the state to sell or transfer the Damen silos site to the city rather than Tadin.

“The city can then work with the community to transform this site into a community asset providing local residents with opportunities for recreation, education, active transportation, and more — all designed in alignment with existing community development plans and riverfront protections,” the group wrote in its letter to Pritzker.

Not a bad idea. The city declined to say if that’s an option, but it will likely have to weigh in on the plan anyway. The site is currently zoned to permit heavy industrial use, but any new construction on the parcel will require city approval because of the riverfront location.

Meanwhile, there has to be a better use for this unique site. Pritzker would do well to hold off on finalizing the sale, and give the communities the time and space to have a proper hand in shaping the silos’ future.

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