Converting empty buildings: a template on Chicago’s South side?

November 16, 2011

By Niala Boodhoo

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(Photo by Niala Boodhoo)
Baby tilapia growing in the basement of The Plant, an urban farm inside a former meatpacking plant on Chicago's South Side.

Vacant industrial buildings dot the Midwest and swallow up chunks of some neighborhoods. But instead of blight, one Chicago man sees opportunity. All this month, we’ve been reporting on empty places. It reminded me of a man I first met last year, when I reported on brownfields. I thought I would check back in with him to find out, a year later, how his experiment to cultivate new life on Chicago’s South Side was turning out.

Deep inside the basement of a former meat packing plant on the edge of Chicago’s Stockyards, rows of giant plastic barrels are neatly lined up. Inside, hundreds of dark grey and pink speckled fish are quietly swimming around.

“We breed all of our own tilapia,” said urban farmer John Edel, as he gestures to a series of tanks full of guppies in one corner of the basement.

Edel calls this building “The Plant”.

It’s a big space – at 93,000-square feet, The Plant is bigger than most department stores. Inside is Edel’s urban farm as well as other tenants, including a brewery.

The building was the home of Peer Foods, which had smoked and roasted meat here since 1925. It sat empty for years before Edel bought it in 2010.

Today, he’s escorting around team of engineers around the building. They’re planning to design a new heating and cooling system for the facility – which he wants to be completely energy self-sufficient.

Edel bought the building for $500,000 to create a vertical farm. Originally, he said he was just thinking of creating creating an aquaponics systems that he combined with light manufacturing and shared office space.

That’s what he did his first building conversion. Originally, Edel was a video game designer. He paid his way through school by doing construction work. Then he got into converting buildings.

His first project was a former paint warehouse in Bridgeport, on the South Side. It’s now the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center – with 16 businesses tenants.

When he found this building, which was already fitted for commercial food storage, Edel saw it as a new opportunity.

“The plan behind the Plant began to change,” he said.

That’s one of the biggest lessons Edel would impart to anybody who’s interested in converting one of the thousands of empty buildings across our region – be flexible.

When he tried to buy his first building, he said the banks laughed him out the door. His realtor arranged an owner-financed sale – basically, Edel paid a mortgage to the building’s owner – until he owned it outright.

His family helped buy this building – so he pays them a mortgage. And Edel uses profits from the first building to help finance operations at the Plant.

While the building is being converted, Edel rents out three acres out back for tractor trailer parking. Some parts of the building are rented as storage space.

He reuses whatever he can, and does as much of the construction work himself – along with an army of volunteers, who help him salvage everything from the building that can be reused, like floor tiles.

Edel’s also had help from local and state governments. He’s taken advantage of some City of Chicago Small Business Improvement program to help finance things like replacing all those windows.

Having a green project also helped secure state grants. He got $1.5 million from Illinois to buy an anaerobic digester that will convert plant and waste matter into energy.

“This model isn’t spending huge amount of money as fast as you can to get the building done as fast as you can,” Edel said. “It’s about slow money and about doing what you can with what you have.”

Lee Bey is executive director of the Chicago Central Area Committee, a downtown civic group that focuses on urban planning. (Full disclosure: he also writes a blog for WBEZ on architecture.) Bey said someone like Edel almost creates magic in that he’s a rare person who tackles problems like vacant commercial properties.

“Even if its not a blight, the absence of something commercial means an absence of jobs, the absence of a dollar turning around in the community,” Bey said.

Although it’s required by law to keep track of vacant residential buildings, the city of Chicago doesn’t actually track vacant commercial properties. Neither do smaller cities like Gary, Ind.

So Bey says the key with someone like Edel is using him as a blueprint.

“I think the real magic is to pull him aside – the City, an Alderman, a city official – and say, ‘What did you do, and how can we do that for that building over there?”

Bey says every city has people like Edel. The key is figure out how their work can be replicated – that’s when seeing fewer and fewer empty buildings.

Changing Gears is a public media collaboration between WBEZ, Michigan Radio and Ideastream in Cleveland. Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.