Eric Allix Rogers

Last Friday, City Council’s Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development voted to recommend that industrial developer Hilco receive a $19.7 million tax break from the Cook County Assessor’s Office for its controversial redevelopment plan for the former Crawford Generating Station in Little Village. The meeting was hastily scheduled—chairman Proco Joe Moreno didn’t file an agenda with the City Clerk’s office until after business hours on Wednesday. (Moreno was ousted by his 1st Ward constituents in last week’s election; his office did not respond to a request for comment about how the meeting was scheduled.)

The proposed tax break, which will likely be considered and passed by the full City Council at its meeting next Wednesday, would allow the property to be assessed at ten percent of its market value for the first ten years, fifteen percent in the eleventh year, and twenty percent in the twelfth year. Industrial properties are generally assessed at twenty-five percent of their market value without this break.

Hilco bought the property, located in the Little Village Industrial Corridor, in 2017, and plans to spend $100 million to create an approximately one-million-square-foot distribution center, a plan approved by the Plan Commission over community objections in September.

The coal-fired Crawford plant was shut down in 2012 after a long fight with residents and environmental justice advocates over pollution, air quality, and related illnesses like asthma. That same year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed a task force to present a suggested plan for the site and its counterpart in Pilsen, the Fisk Generating Station.

But, according to Kim Wasserman-Nieto, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), the city stopped investing in local priorities years ago.

“The task force was just the city’s cover to say that this is a community process,” she said. “[22nd Ward Alderman Ricardo Muñoz] didn’t attend one of the meetings, nor did anyone in his office.”

Hilco plans to demolish the now-vacant Crawford building and replace it with a warehouse-style logistics center for items bought online. Diesel-fueled trucks will transport goods to and from the warehouse. Local activists who fought for the plant’s closure worry these trucks pose a renewed threat to air quality—sooty diesel exhaust replacing coal ash.

The community already had a plan for this site,” said José Acosta, the environmental planning research organizer for LVEJO. “It included greenhouse development, small business incubation, a commercial kitchen, renewable energy development, and cooperative models of development that create real wealth for the community.”

Another concern of grassroots activists is the historically poor treatment of warehouse employees and Hilco’s refusal to guarantee a living wage for all its employees.

According to Hilco’s online fact sheet, the project will provide approximately 360 construction and project labor jobs, and 178 permanent jobs. Those that testified in support of Hilco at the meeting, like representatives of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, noted the arrival of skilled labor as a significant economic opportunity for the neighborhood.

Activists argue that the priority shouldn’t be to bring just any job into the neighborhood. Instead, they want Hilco, and any tenant that leases the center, to provide workers with a living wage and humane treatment. According to Wasserman-Nieto, Hilco has yet to make any such commitments.

Warehouse Workers for Justice, a Chicago-based advocacy group that fights for the wellbeing of warehouse employees and their families, submitted a statement Friday calling on City Council to mandate guarantees from Hilco on job quality, proper community input, and air quality consideration.

“If these issues can’t be addressed, the council should just say no to Hilco,” the letter read.

Friday’s meeting was the second time the Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development met to discuss the tax break. Last month, a handful of aldermen requested a vote delay after residents testified to a lack of community engagement in the process.

Since then, tensions have only increased as activists have interpreted Hilco’s actions, like renaming the project Exchange 55, as public relations efforts intended to deflect from real conversation about how best to serve neighbors.

“The history and impact of this site is very prominent, and Hilco knows that it’s buying that history,” said Wasserman-Nieto. “They think that by doing this whole marketing push, that history is somehow absolved. You can’t remarket your way out of this.”

Perhaps as part of those efforts, Hilco announced the launch last month of an annual, all-expenses-paid scholarship program for two qualified Little Village residents to pursue a two-year skilled trade degree at the City Colleges of Chicago.    

Unlike other neighborhood battles won by LVEJO—such as the transformation of a toxic brownfield into La Villita Park—the Crawford site was never publicly owned land, limiting the influence of local groups who oppose the development.

“We recognize that we have no legal claims to this land,” Wasserman-Nieto said. “But we were led to believe [by Mayor Rahm Emanuel] whichever company bought this property would be expected to engage with the community and abide by our task force recommendations as much as possible.”

One such example Wasserman-Nieto cited was bike lanes: Hilco’s mock-up includes bike lanes in front of the warehouse. Wasserman-Nieto argued that it’s a half-hearted attempt to prove they’re listening to residents. “Who in their right mind is going to want to ride bikes in front of diesel trucks?” she asked.

Currently, Hilco’s slated to continue demolition and remediation throughout early 2019, and complete the project by early 2020.

At Friday’s meeting, the remediation portion of this process fell under scrutiny. Hilco had promised to take a number of steps during this phase to mitigate existing environmental damage and prevent any additional damage. Measures include reusing concrete from the demolition as backfill, installing electric charging stations and solar panels, planting over 600 trees, and spending additional funds on general site cleanup.

However, the Illinois EPA sent a letter to Hilco in October 2018 that disapproved of its remediation report and cited fifteen deficiencies in its efforts.

Ryan Hartley, senior environmental engineer with V3 companies, the firm that prepared the remediation report, said that such back-and-forth is common during the state EPA’s process, which Hilco volunteered to subject itself to, and that the concerns have been resolved over the last few months.

“We’re in good standing with the state EPA,” Hartley said in his testimony to the committee. “They’ve thanked us for creating a document library and the other community involvement we’ve had.” Hartley read from an email he claimed was from the Illinois EPA; when reached for comment Monday, a spokesperson for the agency was unable to confirm or deny whether the issues have been resolved by press time.

But environmental groups, like LVEJO and the Pilsen Alliance, view the letter as evidence that Hilco’s commitment to remediation that protects environmental and human health should be questioned.

After about an hour of back-and-forth testimony at last week’s committee meeting, Muñoz—who was arrested in December on domestic battery charges and has spent much of the time since then in rehab—appeared exasperated, and reminded everyone of his aldermanic privilege.

“I don’t mean to cut anybody off, but for crying out loud, people, this is a local matter,” Muñoz said, echoing comments made by 37th Ward Alderman Emma Mitts to critics of the police academy plan in West Garfield Park. The resolution passed shortly thereafter, with just three aldermen—Ameya Pawar (47th), Milly Santiago (31st), and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th)—voting against it.

Muñoz, who did not run for reelection after twenty-six years on City Council, received $3,000 from the CEO of Hilco’s redevelopment arm last year, according to state campaign finance filings. His office, along with Hilco, did not respond to requests for comment. Michael Rodríguez, his protégé who easily bested three other candidates vying to replace him, told the Energy News Network and Yollocalli Arts Reach last month that, though he is in favor of “good paying jobs” in Little Village, he would support “a community process to determine what [the Crawford site] should become.” His campaign also did not respond to a Weekly request for comment.

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Carly is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where she’s specializing in social justice and investigative reporting. Prior to that, she worked at Outside magazine in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She loves trail running, hoppy IPAs, and mountains.

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