Chicago Industrial Corridor Turning Into Innovative 'Green Street'

Heading west from the Dan Ryan Expressway on the near South Side of Chicago, Cermak Road is a wide, industrial street, lined on its south side with warehouses and factories. The scene continues much the same on Blue Island Avenue, which bears southwest along the South Branch of the Chicago River when Cermak continues into the residential, tree-lined areas of Pilsen and Little Village.

The Fisk coal-fired power plant, on Cermak Road at Racine Avenue. All photos courtesy of Steve Vance.

This corridor of Cermak and Blue Island, which, if not bleak, is certainly an uninspired stretch of Chicago road, is on the brink of becoming one of the most innovative examples of sustainable urban design in the country.

The Cermak/Blue Island Sustainable Streetscape, an $18 million project being developed by the city, is bringing some of the best environmental practices to a redesign of the roadway.

Permeable surfaces on the road will allow for better stormwater drainage. Reflective materials on the sidewalk and the asphalt will reflect more light and heat, minimizing the urban heat islands that swelter during the summer. New streetlights will use less energy and generate less light pollution into the night sky, and will draw their power from solar panels on bus shelter roofs and lampposts.

Maybe the most amazing improvement is the bike lane. The lane will be 5.5 feet wide, adjacent to a band of street parking. It is being constructed of permeable paving blocks, joined and oriented to minimize the grooves and bumps experienced by a biker passing over.

And the concrete used to pave the lane is blended with a substance called TX Active, a construction material that also absorbs nitrogen oxide, a pollutant generated by car traffic, out of the surrounding air. In other words, the road itself will be drawing pollution out of the skies.

A permeable paving block. The top layer contains a TX Active substance that absorbs pollutants. All photos courtesy of Steve Vance.

Alderman Danny Solis represents the 25th Ward, where the green street is being built. He sees it as a valuable bridge between the successful industrial corridor and the rest of the ward.

“We need to have industry, and we need to have vital commercial and residential areas,” he said in a phone interview with HuffPost Chicago. “With projects like this, it’s feasible that these two can be compatible.”

Urban planning experts praised the project’s design and execution. “I do think it is as innovative as it sounds,” said Steven Vance, author of the Steven Can Plan blog, in an email.

He recalled a conversation about the project with Chicago Department of Transportation project manager David Leopold, who heads up the Cermak/Blue Island project. “David called the project a ‘LEED street,’" he said, referring to the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design Standard. LEED doesn’t certify streets, but Vance says Leopold was imagining, "If we were to make a LEED platinum street, what would it be?"

The rebuilding of the roadway was also undertaken in conjunction with the expansion of the Benito Juarez Community Academy, at the intersection of Cermak and Blue Island. That school now features, among other new touches, a carefully designed runoff water feature, including the hidden spout shown here:

An artificial creek designed at Benito Juarez. When it rains, drainage systems like the spout shown will deposit water there, where it will be absorbed into the ground, or run off into a nearby bioswale. All photos courtesy of Steve Vance.

Alderman Solis expects the project to be finished by fall of 2011. It’s funded almost exclusively by a tax-increment financing district that covers the industrial corridor.

The alderman hopes it won't stop in Pilsen. "It's a good model, and the rest of the city should take notice," Solis said.

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