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Massive underground project proposed for land below toxic site on Southeast Side

Ozinga wants to develop a 6 million square foot project 350 feet below the surface of a brownfield site.  

A rendering of the proposed underground facility that Ozinga wants to build.
Provided

Construction materials company Ozinga Bros. Inc. is proposing to build a 6 million square foot underground warehouse development on a former steel site along the Calumet River on the Southeast Side.

The company wants to reuse a brownfield property just north of Reserve Management Group’s planned car-shredding facility that’s facing opposition from residents. Acknowledging community tensions over developments in the heavily industrial area, company officials recently began holding meetings with small numbers of residents to tell them about the project.

“Understanding the history of this area … it’s important for us to make sure we’re being as transparent as possible,” said Alberto Rincon, director of community planning for the project planned north of 116th Street at Burley Avenue.

The proposed space, to be built over 13 years, would be 250 to 350 feet underground and is being initially touted as a home for storage, data centers, light manufacturing or a number of other potential uses.

Project officials say the land is likely so toxic it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up, but they believe by locating the facility well below the surface they can avoid that and still operate safely.

The proposal includes a large solar field.
Provided

The officials are stressing sustainability features of the facility, including erecting a huge field of solar panels atop the land and potentially using other renewable energy sources.

Branded The Invert, project developers hope to win city approval later this year with a plan to begin construction in 2022. The company has not yet purchased the 140 acres of land.

Tenants would be leased space in stages, said Steve King, an Ozinga executive and president of the limited liability company set up for the development.

One of his pitches to city officials will be to create a mix of different employers to an area of Chicago that has never fully recovered from the steel mills closing but still lives with that industry’s toxic legacy.

“With 6 million square feet of space, we can bring in a very diverse group of employers,” King said.

Ozinga would extract much of the limestone under the soil and remove it largely on barges via the Calumet, he said.

But Ozinga, an experienced mining company, won’t be “mining” for this project but rather excavating like what is done for any other construction project, King said. Earlier this year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had proposed maintaining a ban on mining in Chicago as part of an anti-pollution ordinance that has been held up in a committee.

“I’m very leery about this project,” said Peggy Salazar, director of the community group Southeast Environmental Task Force.

Salazar said she and other residents are suspicious of new projects because they feel the city has directed a lot of dirty industry to their community.

The proposed location of a new underground facility.
The Invert Chicago

Many residents oppose the relocation of the General Iron metal-shredding operation from Lincoln Park to RMG’s site as well as a huge logistics operation being built nearby for Ford Motor Co. by NorthPoint Development. Both projects sit on land once operated by Republic Steel.

“We don’t know what the noise factor is going to be like, we don’t know what the dust factor is going to be. Are they going to be using explosives?” Salazar asked. “There are just too many unanswered questions but more importantly is that the type of project we want in someone’s backyard?”

Rincon said he understands the concern.

“We want to help shift the narrative of this palace as a dumping ground,” Rincon said.

Similar underground projects are not unprecedented. An even larger development known as SubTropolis opened in Kansas City, Missouri, in the 1960s and continues to operate.

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