• Caroline Kubzansky
    MAY 21, 2021

    Plan Commission narrowly approves McKinley Park affordable development amid cries of environmental racism

    A proposed 120-unit affordable housing development faced blowback in the Chicago Plan Commission due to concerns about environmental racism. [Department of Planning and Development]

    A divided Chicago Plan Commission voted on Thursday to allow a new affordable housing development about 650 feet from the McKinley Park MAT Asphalt plant, as multiple commissioners said they feared the move would perpetuate environmental racism against the developments future residents who are extremely likely to be Latino.

    The development, a 120-unit building totaling 180,000 square feet at 2939 W. Pershing Road in the 12th Ward, came before the Plan Commission with a green light from the Department of Planning and Development, though a representative from the department said his team  retained some concerns about the proximity to the asphalt plant.

    Developers told the commission they planned to rent out all 120 units for between 30 and 80 percent of average median income — between $511 for a one-bedroom and $1,635 for a three-bedroom apartment.

    After more than two hours of debate over the merits of the proposal and the potential hazards of locating it so close to the industrial site, Plan Commission Chair Teresa Córdova wavered for several seconds before deciding how to cast her vote.

    "I still don't really know which way to vote, but I guess I have to vote, and my vote is — it's no," Córdova said after a long pause. 

    The commission eventually approved the proposal on a 7-4 vote after weighing the need for affordable housing in the area against fears that putting homes so close to an industrial site would have adverse health effects on residents, similar to fears that motivated the massive organizing effort against the metal scrapper Reserve Management Group's attempt to relocate to Chicago's East Side neighborhood.

    Córdova said she'd spoken recently to a mother from the neighborhood whose two adult sons had died from cancer, a conversation that contributed to her hesitancy to greenlight the project, she said.

    "It's not just a matter of environment, or bad smells or whatever, it's an issue of health," Córdova said. 

    Project attorney Steve Friedland objected to the concerns, accusing the commissioners of having a "not in my backyard" attitude.

    "I'm often confronted with people who come to meetings and say, 'it's a great project but just not in the right location' — the NIMBY response," he said. "I hope the commissioners do not assume that we are unaware that there is an asphalt plant a few hundred feet away from this building." 

    Friedland then ticked off several mitigating factors that the team took into account in deciding to go ahead with the project, including distance between the building and the plant and prevailing winds that blow away from the development, as well as a city report that found the plant didn't pose a risk to residents.

    Rick Whitney reiterated that the building would have HVAC air filtering to protect  air quality inside the building, as well as fast-growing vegetation outside and access to a large park across Pershing Road.

    "This is not a NIMBY matter," Comm. Guacolda Reyes said. "For me, this is more about racial equality and what are we offering to our Latino families that desperately need this kind of housing."

    "I am extremely conflicted by this project,” Reyes added. “I totally agree with the lack of affordable housing for Latinos, but I'm also conflicted by the fact that this beautiful building is not going to give a choice to low-income families that are primarily going to be Latinos."

    Reyes said the level of affordability the building would offer was also a point of concern for her.

    "We do need to come up with an environmental justice criteria," she said. "It's not fair to apply a criteria that doesn't exist to a development that is in the process, but I am extremely conflicted by this."

    Ald. George Cardenas (12), whose ward includes the development site, bristled at commissioners' concerns about the asphalt plant, asking repeatedly to be recognized to speak and telling commissioners they might not have complete knowledge of the situation in the ward.

    "Someone of the area that knows the area well should speak," Cardenas said. "I'm waiting."

    Upon taking the floor, Cardenas told the commission that he was skeptical of complaints filed about the plant, particularly because calls came when the plant was not operating.

    “Many of those complaints are out of bounds of the times of operation, but nevertheless people are told to call and complain about this plant,” he said. “A lot of it, in context, is unfair to the conversation we’re having here.”

    Cardenas added that home costs in McKinley Park are “skyrocketing,” and he said blocking the development would be a hit to residents who are trying to revitalize their communities.

    “These buildings are phenomenal. They’re solid,” Cardenas continued. “I hear the commissioners’ concerns, but I can tell you… if you compare apples to apples, you have other similar industrial capacity plants that are closer to this one, that are building million-dollar homes.”

    Cardenas faced significant criticism from some neighbors after MAT Asphalt was allowed to open in 2018 without any public meetings or community notice.

    Jared Remington, one of the project’s developers, echoed the worry that preventing the development from moving forward would only deprive the area of housing, rather than fixing the environmental risks for locals. 

    "If we're denied, the only thing that changes is the community loses 120 units of affordable housing," Remington said.  

    Last November, the commissioner voted 8-6 to approve a 112,000-square-foot industrial distribution center in Bridgeport after commissioners raised similar concerns over environmental racism. Votes in the commission are typically unanimous.

    All other items listed in The Daily Line's preview of the meeting passed the commission, including JDL development’s plan to develop more than 4,000 homes on the site of the Near North Side Moody Bible Institute. All six proposals now head to the City Council for consideration.

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