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Jeanne Gang’s green deal to build environmental research center wilts

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

It was supposed to bring 100,000 visitors annually to Chicago’s Southeast Side, which normally doesn’t share in the tourist trade. It was to be a one-of-a-kind center for environmental research and education. And it was supposed to be open by now.

Instead, the planned Ford Calumet Environmental Center designed by Jeanne Gang, the biggest name in the new generation of Chicago architects, looks more unlikely by the day. Gang is the acclaimed designer of the Aqua building downtown, and her plans for the environmental center also drew wide attention. But they may have been too impractical to get built.

The center, northwest of 134th and Torrence and alongside the Hegewisch Marsh, was to have used salvaged materials the way birds do, so it was called Best Nest. It also would have harvested solar energy and rainwater and possessed internal wastewater treatment so it wouldn’t need a sewer connection. In 2004, its estimated cost was $7.6 million.

Two community leaders said the city’s Department of Environment now estimates the one-story building would cost $27 million, although it’s unclear if that includes staff and programming. They said a deputy commissioner, Aaron Durnbaugh, broke the news to activists March 15 that the city will either radically economize on the design or get a new one.

I asked the department about its intentions and got a statement saying in part, “Since the project was first proposed, the plans have evolved and will continue to do so as we move toward construction. The city is committed to working toward building an environmental center that will improve the quality of life for both the community and visitors.”

Ford Motor Co., whose assembly plant and supplier park are just north of the land, has committed $6 million for the building and the state has kicked in $3 million.

Peggy Salazar, acting director of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, heard the gloomy report from Durnbaugh. “As a community, we will be very disappointed if this doesn’t happen,” she said.

Judith Lihota, president of the Calumet Ecological Park Association, said the city’s new stance on the project was a “bombshell.” She called on Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel to support a building that she said would showcase how polluted wastelands have been reclaimed as wetlands and prairies.

Gang was reported to be traveling and could not be reached. Why is it that “green” design conserves materials and energy, but seldom cash?

BRANCHING OUT: Urban Partnership Bank, the reconstituted ShoreBank, said it will open branches in the Loop and the Austin neighborhood. They are the first of what it calls micro-branches — small locations designed for convenience and to appeal to customers put off by standard bank offices.

The bank leased 2,200 square feet from Marc Realty at 55 E. Jackson, and 3,500 square feet from W.J. Madison Plaza LLC for 5235 W. Madison. They are due to open this summer. The Austin location will replace a loan office at 5100 W. Harrison that the bank plans to close in May.

DOWNTOWN FOR TOTS: Who says you can’t raise kids downtown? Magellan Development Group LLC said a preschool for children ages 2 to 5 will open for the start of the next school year in its Lakeshore East complex. Called the Chalk Preschool of Lakeshore East, it will offer a variety of programs on the ground floor of the Tides apartment tower, 360 E. South Water.

Magellan hopes the school, along with the retail it has added to Lakeshore East, will give the 28-acre site a greater sense of community.

The site is on the lakefront between Wacker and Randolph, and I like the following comment about it by Magellan Co-Chief Executive James Loewenberg, which is a history lesson in a sentence: “We’ve come a long way in transforming what was a forlorn site that served as a transshipment port serving Chicago’s growing economy in the mid-19th century, an Illinois Central railroad freight yard and terminus and, most recently, a par-three, nine-hole urban golf course into the most vibrant community in Chicago.”

CALENDAR NOTE: You’ll have to get up early April 6 for insights into the industrial real estate market. Registration is at 7 a.m. and panel discussions start at 8:15 a.m. at the Oak Brook Marriott, 1401 W. 22nd St., Oak Brook. The speaker lineup is stellar. Information for the 8th Annual Industrial Summit is at

DOING THE DEALS: Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, 2525 S. Michigan, can renovate its birthing center and cardiac care unit, plus do other work, now that the Federal Housing Administration has insured a $66 million loan to the hospital. The deal also lets Mercy refinance old debt. … BPG Properties Ltd. said ad agency Laughlin Constable Inc. leased 17,000 square feet at its 200 S. Michigan. … Carhartt, which sells work and outdoors clothes, will open its first Chicago store. It’ll be in 3,000 square feet at 1518 N. Milwaukee and a party is planned April 14.

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