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City: Street in Pilsen is ‘greenest in America’

The Cermak/Blue IslSustainable Streetscape was unveiled outside BeniJuarez Community Academy Tuesday afternoon. Chicago Dept. TransportatiCommissioner Gabe Kle(podium) was unveiling. |

The Cermak/Blue Island Sustainable Streetscape was unveiled outside the Benito Juarez Community Academy Tuesday afternoon. Chicago Dept. of Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein (at podium) was at the unveiling. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 11, 2012 6:28AM

The city’s calling it the “greenest street in America.”

But it’s not necessarily where you would expect it to be, like near a forest preserve or a quiet leafy neighborhood.

It’s the always-bustling Cermak Road, as it passes in front of Benito Juarez Community and near Pilsen’s industrial corridor.

As students filtered out of the school Tuesday, the Chicago Department of Transportation showed off the first 1.5 miles of work of its $14 million sustainable streetscape project, which will eventually extend for a total of two miles on Cermak between Halsted and Ashland and then Blue Island between Ashland and Western.

Students walked out onto a wider sidewalk made of 30 percent recycled content. And cars sped by on a road made of “smog eating” cement, known as photocatalytic cement. It’s the first time the cement has been used in the country. It cleans the road’s surface and gets rid of nitrogen oxide gases through a catalytic reaction driven by UV light, officials said.

Crews also added reflective surfaces to the street to minimize the heat island effect that is caused when dark pavement absorbs heat, according to CDOT.

The city says the whole thing is not as complicated as it may seem. And the project costs 21 percent less than comparable construction projects in the city, according to city transportation chief Gabe Klein. The project is funded through Tax Increment Financing, as well as $800,000 in grants.

“This project really demonstrates a full range of sustainable design techniques that improve the urban ecosystem, that promote economic growth, increase the safety and sustainability of streets for all users and builds healthier neighborhoods,” Klein said.

The project’s manager, David Leopold, said the project can take the greenest street label because it’s incorporating sustainable goals — thinking about ways to manage stormwater, reuse material, reduce energy and add safety — all in one setting.

“There are streets in the country, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, on the stormwater side that have been leaders for a long time in different aspects of sustainable structure design,” Leopold said. “This is the first time in Chicago, the first city that’s comprehensively applied sustainable goals to one project.”

Nancy Grajeda, a junior, said she’s a fan of one of the most noticeable features of the project: the first permanent wind- and solar-powered pedestrian light.

The vertical wind tower and solar panel powers a LED light and illuminates a kiosk that describes the function of the tower.

“I actually really love the wind thing, because it builds up energy, stuff that we actually need,” Grajeda said. “We’re not using stuff that we shouldn’t be using. It’s saving the environment, and a lot of money.”

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