‘Protect our home:’ Girl Scouts paint mural in support of resident opposition to proposed data center in South Loop

Local residents continue to rally against the expansion of a data center, citing concerns of noise disruption and potential air pollution, according to the president of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance.

SHARE ‘Protect our home:’ Girl Scouts paint mural in support of resident opposition to proposed data center in South Loop
Children paint a mural that reads “Protect Our Home”

Girl Scouts with Troop 26260 at Prairie District Park work on a mural that says, “Protect our home” in response to a proposed data center near East 21st Street and South Calumet Avenue.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

More than 15 Girl Scouts have joined a resident-led effort to protest a proposed data center in the South Loop.

Late last week, the girls, age 7, sprawled across a large mural at Prairie District Park as they painted an image of earth, a rainbow and an assortment of hearts. Bold purple letters read, “Protect our home.”

The 5-by-20-foot mural, which will be installed this week on the west wall of Chess Lofts across the street, is part of area residents’ protest against Digital Realty Trust’s proposed data center near East 21st Street and South Calumet Avenue, saying it will cause a disturbance to the community.

An empty lot in the 2100 block of South Calumet Avenue is the location of a future datacenter in the Prairie District neighborhood, Wednesday, March 29, 2023. | Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Digital Realty Trust has proposed a data center in an empty lot at East 21st Street and South Calumet Avenue in the Prairie Avenue District.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

The Girl Scout troop and their parents teamed up with the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance on the project.

Many of these children frequent the park, said Tina Feldstein, the president of the alliance and a resident of Chess Lofts across the street.

“Most of these girls live in the neighborhood and go to the local school,” said Lindsay Jackson, mother of Carter, one of the girls painting the mural.

That’s part of the reason, according to Feldstein, the alliance partnered with the Girl Scout troop.

Feldstein, who said she has found black soot coating her outdoor furniture and believes it’s from the data center, raised concerns about the impact an expanded data center on Prairie District Park.

Data centers can have adverse effects on the communities around them, Gilbert Michaud, an assistant professor of environmental policy at Loyola University Chicago, wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

Michaud said a dark soot, known as “black dust,” can sometimes be found in data centers when operating. This soot, which usually stems from overheating and worn-out rubber belts, can flow out of the data center onto nearby homes and cars.

Noise pollution is often another complaint for people living near data centers, he said.

Academic research has started to investigate the health impact of data centers, Michaud said, but research about the potential effects to asthma, cancer and other health concerns is still needed.

Girl Scouts with Troop 26260 paint as part of a community’s larger protest against the building of a data center at East 21st Street and South Calumet Avenue.

Girl Scouts with Troop 26260 work on a mural as part of a community’s larger protest against the building of a data center at East 21st Street and South Calumet Avenue.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Digital has nine data centers in the greater Chicago area including three in Elk Grove Village, two in Franklin Park and one in Northlake. It has two data centers in Chicago, according to the company’s website. One is located at 600 S. Federal St. and the other is at 350 E. Cermak Road, near where Digital has proposed the new data center.

Digital is seeking approval for a zoning change to build a 261-foot-tall data center that would stand 11 stories high, a company spokesperson said Friday. The building, including the basement, would be 552,495 square feet.

Data centers are buildings that hold applications and data, including routers, firewalls and storage systems, according to Cisco. They typically support activities like email, working in a cloud and streaming.

Demand for data centers in the U.S. is forecast to grow by 10% a year until 2030, according to McKinsey and Company, and Chicago is a popular place for companies looking for locations for such facilities. The city is tied for fifth place in its appeal for such facilities among global markets, according to a 2023 report by Cushman & Wakefield. The ranking is based on factors such as land costs, reliable utilities and state-authorized tax incentives.

Chicago has 94 data centers, according to Data Center Map.

More than 700 residents as of Thursday have signed a petition against the proposed data center, citing concerns of noise and air pollution.

Data centers can have adverse effects on the environment, Michaud said.

“Due to the thousands of servers and related equipment, data centers are one of the most energy-intensive building types, which can pointedly increase emissions if using fossil fuel-based electricity,” he said.

However, Michaud pointed out Digital’s data center has publicly committed to using 100% carbon-free electricity.

In a statement, Digital said the company is “committed to working closely with the communities where we operate to minimize environmental impact and ensure our data centers meet local building standards.”

The company said it’s working with the city’s Department of Planning and Development, the Department of Public Health, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) and residents to ensure plans meet city requirements.

“Over the coming months we will continue speaking with the local community and Chicago City Council, to ensure any concerns are addressed,” the company’s statement said.

Feldstein urged Dowell to reject the expansion proposal. Dowell’s team said Thursday the alderperson was not aware of the Girl Scout mural and had no comment on the expansion at the time.

Feldstein said she hopes the mural helps raise awareness about the potential consequences of this expansion, especially to local residents.

“I’m hoping they understand that we care not only about our environment but our very local environment, not just the world and the earth, but that being conscious and sustainable is very much a local conversation,” she said.

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