Ozingas’ underground development on Southeast Side may be dead due to mining ban

A city zoning official recently issued an opinion based on what’s publicly known about the proposed 6 million square foot project. The family-backed venture isn’t giving up.

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A rendering shows the entrance to a proposed massive underground commercial space along the Calumet River where a steel mill once operated. The project’s fate is uncertain as the city says a ban on mining would prohibit the development.

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A massive underground warehouse development proposed for a long-dormant piece of former steel mill land on the Southeast Side may be dead on arrival as City Hall officials signal that a ban on mining likely prohibits the project from being approved.

For more than two years, the Ozinga family, owners of the namesake concrete and materials business, has pushed the idea of a 6 million square foot commercial space below the surface that drops down 350 feet deep along the Calumet River near East 112th Street.

Even as city officials indicate that such a plan may be unlawful, backers of the project known as the Invert, say they are going forward and they hope to convince the city to reconsider. The developers have not yet filed any applications with the city for the planned project, which would be built under 144 acres where Republic Steel once operated. 

The Invert is pitched as a way to revive the Southeast Side, which has never recovered economically from the closure of steel mills decades ago that once dominated the area and provided tens of thousands of jobs.

Last month, lawyers for a pair of South Side environmental groups received an opinion from a city zoning official who determined, based on information publicly available, the Invert would require mining, which is banned in the city.

“Based on the information provided, it is our opinion that the proposed use is mining,” city Zoning Administrator Patrick Murphey wrote. “Mining is not an allowed use in any zoning district.”

Murphey’s opinion was offered after a pair of organizations requested it, a procedure often sought out by landowners who are considering new development. The Sun-Times reviewed the city opinion.

Olga Bautista, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, said she was concerned about the motive for the project and questioned whether the plan was largely being proposed to extract limestone for the Ozinga concrete business. Invert officials have insisted that was not the intention of the project.

Bautista’s organization, along with People for Community Recovery, asked for the city zoning opinion through their lawyers. 

Mining used to be permissible in so-called planned manufacturing districts until a revision to the law was passed in early 2021. The change was part of an ordinance aimed at cutting down air pollution from manufacturing sites, including the location where the Invert is being planned. 

That law was voted on and passed by the City Council after being initially offered by Mayor Lori Lightfoot in 2020 and then later rewritten. 

Bautista called the ban on mining potentially “our saving grace for preventing this project from moving forward.”

Former Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza supported the 2021 ordinance that included the mining ban and also appeared in a video made by developers to promote the Invert project. 

The Ozingas, through a family run investment firm run by Aaron Ozinga, have hired a staff and opened a community engagement office in the East Side neighborhood. Ozinga declined to comment. 

The Invert developers said that the city can’t make any binding ruling yet because not a single application has been submitted.

“We disagree that the Invert constitutes mining,” the developers said in a statement to the Sun-Times, adding that they hope to move forward with the project. “The Invert will be among the most sustainable and environmentally friendly projects in the entire city and will help revitalize one of Chicago’s great neighborhoods.”

The developers say they will provide studies showing that the project will not produce more pollution than a traditional construction project. And they hope the promise of jobs and green infrastructure, including solar panels, and new trees will be attractive to the community and City Hall. 

A spokesman for the city’s Planning Department, which includes zoning, said he couldn’t comment on the Invert because no application has been submitted by the developer.

City health officials, who oversee environmental protection, were more adamant that the law prohibits the development.

“The city recognizes the harmful impacts of mining on the environment, health and quality of life for our communities, which is why this sort of use is not permitted in Chicago,” the Chicago Department of Health said in a statement. 

Contributing: Aydali Campa

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

The images above show the land along the Calumet River as it appears today and a rendering of the proposed Invert development.

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