PARTIAL LOSS: Demolition of Crawford Power Station Underway (Chi 7 2019 and 2014)

Crawford Power Station Demolition. Photo Credit: Mary Lu Seidel / Preservation Chicago

The demolition of the Crawford Station is underway, and the loss is a tragedy for Chicago. Due to the enormous scale of the building and the high quality of construction, Preservation Chicago is continuing to advocate for those portions of the building that remain standing.

On June 22, 2019 the Illinois General Assembly approved a new casino in Chicago with location to be determined. Governor J.B. Pritzker says it shouldn’t be located downtown or near McCormick Place. Preservation Chicago recommends the adaptive reuse of the Crawford Power Station the new Chicago casino. Crawford’s massive structure could accommodate the new use. Additionally, the mostly vacant site is 72-acres so there is ample room for parking lots and other new construction and it has excellent access to the Stevenson Expressway. The site is located on Chicago’s southwest side but is close enough to be convenient to the Loop. A casino use would provide vastly more jobs and produce vastly less pollution than the currently proposed mega-truck cross dock.

Designed by architects Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, Crawford is on par with the firm’s other commissions including Chicago Union Station, Soldier Field, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Chicago’s old Main Post Office and the Merchandise Mart (once the world’s largest building). Upon its completion in 1926, Crawford Station was considered an engineering marvel of the modern world yet the demolition permit hold was released on the very first day of its 90-Day Demolition Delay hold.

Despite strong objection from neighbors and community organizations, on March 1, 2019 the Chicago City Council voted to approve the demolition of historic Crawford Station and redevelopment of its site. Additionally, they approved a $19.7 million tax break for Hilco Development’s planned distribution center on the site. Activists from organizations including Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and the Sierra Club attended the overflow meeting at City Hall to protest the tax-break and proposed new construction. At the September 13, 2018 Plan Commission meeting, opponents loudly protested the vote before being removed from the chamber by security guards. (Cherone, Block Club Chicago, 9/13/18)

The 72-acre site will be cleared to make way for the construction of a 1-million-square-foot, cross-dock truck facility with 188 truck docks. Little Village Environmental Justice Organization Executive Director Kim Wasserman-Nieto said given the historic respiratory issues in the neighborhood from industrial pollution and diesel trucks inundating the neighborhood, the development should not receive financial incentives. (Pena, Block Club Chicago, 3/13/19)

Meleah Geerstma, attorney and Midwest director of Health Equity and Water for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the proposed replacement of coal plant pollution with a warehouse that will bring [more] diesel trucks to the neighborhood is “the wrong thing to do for the health of this community.” (Cherone, Block Club Chicago, 9/13/18)

It’s possible that this development would not have moved forward without the strong support of former 22nd Ward Alderman Ricardo Muñoz. Muñoz had not been seen at City Hall since Dec. 31, 2018 after his arrest for unrelated matters. However, he returned to City Hall for the March TIF hearing to silence the objections of fellow alderman and the community to force through the tax break for Hilco. (Quig, Block Club Chicago, 3/1/19)

After roughly an hour of questioning from aldermen about the project, Muñoz grew frustrated. “I don’t mean to cut anybody off, but for crying out loud people, this is a local matter!” (Quig, Block Club Chicago, 3/1/19)

35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly, 31st Ward Alderman Milly Santiago, 45th Ward Alderman Ald. John Arena, and 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar voted against the tax break. The new 22nd Ward Alderman Mike Rodriguez has not taken a public statement on the development plan.

Engineering magazine in July 1925, noted that “Probably no power station ever built has commanded greater interest during the period of its construction than has Crawford Avenue Station in Chicago.” The magazine made numerous references to the world power conference in London, England and the interest in Chicago’s new power plant.

The Crawford Station innovative technology conquered the previously difficult task of employing steam engine turbine technology to create the world’s largest electrical generators. The massive electricity production allowed Chicago to grow and prosper at a magnitude not previously seen. The success of the Crawford Station was replicated around the world, but it all began in Chicago.

The Crawford Station is composed of red-brick, stonework masonry, Modern Gothic forms and Renaissance-Revival detailing to create an eclectic mix of historic styles, now termed “Industrial Gothic.” The main Turbine Hall is a stately, massive red-brick building, resembling the front façade of a church or religious structure with its large flanking towers dominating the front facade. A mammoth three-story, arched window opening is divided with slender brick piers.

This industrial reuse plan is tragically ironic, considering the extraordinary 12-year effort to close the Crawford Station to eliminate the toxic pollution it generated. This was led by a consortium of neighborhood activists and organization such as Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Delta Institute, Sierra Club Task Force and community activists. The massive truck staging facility will generate high levels of exhaust and noise pollution.

The Little Village community’s voice has been unrepresented in these redevelopment plans. Instead of a plan that threatens the safety and quality of life of community residents and destroys important architectural history of Chicago, Hilco could be a more responsible corporate neighbor and work with the community to find a healthy balance between the company’s profits, the people’s right to live in a healthy and safe neighborhood and one that retains its historic built environment.

It is possible and essential to redevelop this site in a way that minimizes harm to the community, honors the history and architecture and yet profitable for a developer. Little Village residents should not be required to sacrifice their quality of life in exchange for a corporation maximizing its return on investment on the Crawford site.

In London, the once shuttered coal-fired plant built in 1947 was adaptively reused and is now the celebrated Tate Modern. This river-front art museum has become the third most visited attraction in the United Kingdom with 5.8 million visitors in 2016. That shuttered power planted building faced repeated threats of demolition for nearly 20 years prior to its reuse in 2000. Currently in Savannah, Georgia, the former Georgia Power Plant located on the Savannah River is being turned into a 670,000-square-foot, mixed-used development by Marriott.

Hilco recently acquired another significant property in the Pilsen community, the Fisk Generating Station at 1111 West Cermak. The company can practice profitable and sensitive redevelopment at Crawford to gear up for the same model at Fisk. Our city’s history should not be erased for these insensitive developments.

Preservation Chicago is not opposed to community-sensitive redevelopment for the Crawford site, but it strongly encourages the 1926 portion of the 72-acre campus be adaptively reused in any redevelopment plan. The historic structures could incorporate some of the existing equipment to tell a story of Chicago’s place on the world stage in the history of electricity and the production process. This concept was employed at the former Sears Roebuck headquarters on Chicago’s West Side where some of the old powerhouse equipment was integrated into the new high school, known as the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center.

Community residents, including those involved with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, favor a reuse on the site that retains the historic buildings and offers potentially food-related growing and production operations within those structures. Hilco could then find a use on the site’s vast vacant lands that is respectful of the community’s quality of life goals. Jobs can be created and profits can be turned without causing harm to the community and erasing our historic built environment.

The 1 million-square-foot facility proposed at Crawford would never be considered on Chicago’s North or Northwest sides, and it should not be forced on the neighbors in Little Village/South Lawndale. Residents there have endured decades of disinvestment and environmental pollution with minimal investment of City resources toward protecting its built history.

Additional Reading:
Massive Little Village Warehouse On Old Crawford Coal Plant Site Approved By City Council; The 1-million-square-foot project was approved despite vehement opposition from some Little Village residents and environmental groups., Mauricio Pena, Heather Cherone and A.D. Quig, Block Club Chicago, 3/13/19

After Post-Arrest Absence, Ald. Muñoz Returns To City Hall To Argue For Tax Break For Little Village Project; “I don’t mean to cut anybody off, but for crying out loud, people, this is a local matter,” Muñoz said after being questioned about the environmental impact and other factors for the distribution plant. A.D. Quig, Block Club Chicago, 3/1/19

Huge Distribution Hub Likely Replacing Crawford Coal Plant — Meaning More Dirty Air For Little Village, Critics Say; Little Village opponents loudly protested during a key vote on the $100 million project before being removed from the chamber by security guards, Heather Cherone and Mauricio Pena, Block Club Chicago, 9/13/18

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