State Kicks in $2M to Transform South Side Brownfield Into Hub for Green Innovation

Patty Wetli

August 7, 2020

After decades of disinvestment, recent months have seen the city, state and private foundations all pump multimillion dollar contributions into developments slated for the Auburn Gresham community.

The latest infusion came Friday, with Gov. J.B. Pritzker announcing a $2 million investment from the state’s Rebuild Illinois program to fill the final funding gap for the Green Era Urban Farming Campus, a project that just one day prior was declared part of the winning team in the inaugural $10 million Chicago Prize competition.

“This feels like the proverbial icing on the cake,” said Carlos Nelson, executive of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC).

The $32 million campus will transform a vacant brownfield at 650 W. 83rd St. into a hub for green innovation and jobs. The nine-acre site will include a 13,000-square-foot greenhouse, allowing for year-round food production; provide education and training for farmers and gardeners; serve as an incubator for green entrepreneurs; and implement innovative technology, in the form of an anaerobic digester that will convert food scraps into energy and compost.

“This is a project that incorporates renewable energy, food production, availability of healthy foods, and climate-smart job training. It’s exactly the kind of 21st century vision that deserves our investment,” said Pritzker.

The once thriving Auburn Gresham was decimated by white flight and the subsequent deterioration of its formerly bustling business districts. The Green Era campus will now put the community on the forefront of the green economy, Pritzker said.

He praised Erika Allen, co-founder of Green Era and co-CEO of Urban Growers Collective, for her passion and yearslong commitment to the project.

A leader in Chicago’s urban farming community, Allen has been the driving force behind the campus proposal, and said that the past week, in which long-gestating plans have finally born fruit, represents the dawn of a new future for the South Side.

“I think for a lot of us who come the great migration and all of the things that we have been struggling with as a city, to have a space during this most dark time bring light into the city, and to really begin to look past these challenges to what can come, and also rectify and come to terms with the legacy of being enslaved, and what that has meant economically — this is what this project represents, that transition,” said Allen.

Construction can now begin on the site, with organizers aiming for a spring 2022 completion. The first step is to begin environmental remediation of the land, formerly home to International Harvester and most recently used as an impound lot by the Chicago Police Department.

The Illinois EPA provided a $1 million loan from its Brownfield Redevelopment Loan Fund, including $200,000 in principal forgiveness, to help with the site’s cleanup. Green Era also received $600,000 in grants from the U.S. EPA.  

Work on the Green Era campus is kicking off in tandem with construction of a new Metra station near 79th and Halsted, and renovation of a vacant building set to become a healthy lifestyle hub.

“Just think, in calendar year 2021, the Auburn Gresham skies will be lit up with cranes and earth movers as three large capital projects, all within a three-and-a-half block radius, will be under construction,” said Nelson. “The future is bright for Auburn Gresham. We are here proclaiming that, yes, there is hope being instilled and there are resources coming to projects that represent true sustainable development.”