Surveying Brownfields in Little Village: A Community-Driven Approach to Neighborhood Revitalization

The recently closed Crawford Coal Plant looms over Little Village, or La Villita, reminding residents of the neighborhood's industrial past.

The recently closed Crawford coal plant looms over Little Village, or La Villita, reminding residents of the neighborhood’s industrial past.

On a warm Thursday afternoon in early July, a group of 25 student volunteers with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and two Delta staff gathered in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. Armed with electronic tablets, the volunteers packed into cars to fan out across the neighborhood to inventory vacant and potentially contaminated commercial sites, known as brownfields.

The teams were conducting “windshield surveys” of brownfield sites in the neighborhood – driving from site to site and collecting information with a goal of identifying sites that are prime for redevelopment. These brownfield sites included properties that were previously gas stations, auto repair shops, factories or any other commercial enterprises that may have contaminated into the ground. The volunteers collected information about each site, making specific notes about building condition and characteristics. Over the next several weeks, the teams will survey the more than 100 brownfield sites located in Little Village .

These types of properties often fall into vacancy and sit unattended throughout neighborhoods across the city. Margaret Renas, a project manager at Delta Institute, explains, “In the past, many property owners bought property without evaluating the potential environmental liability associated with the site. It wasn’t until environmental regulations were put into place in the 1980’s that many of the contaminated properties were identified, as lenders began requiring an environmental assessment before approving mortgages. Unfortunately, those who unknowingly bought contaminated properties often had trouble selling those sites.”

This brownfield inventory is one step in a larger community-driven brownfield revitalization effort being led by LVEJO and Delta in Little Village. The information collected as part of the windshield surveys will be presented at community meetings, and the partners will work with local residents to prioritize the most economically viable buildings and vacant lots for remediation and redevelopment.  This important work is an essential first step in building a clean and sustainable future for Little Village and Chicago.

To find out more about the project and LVEJO’s history of environmental justice organizing, check out this article in Sustainable Chicago Magazine.

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