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A couple of years ago First Ward alderman Manny Flores was confronted with what’s become a familiar problem in Chicago and other rust belt cities: the closing of a manufacturing company and the loss of dozens of union jobs. But due to innovative thinking, teamwork, luck, and, quite frankly, a lack of proven alternatives, the building that housed the plant, at 2545 West Diversey, was saved from decline—or condos—and converted into an incubator for sustainable businesses.
It’s too soon to say if the Green Exchange, as it’s known, will become a genuine economic engine, but its early promise has pushed Flores to become one of the City Council’s most outspoken advocates for investment in the new green economy—as well as for discussion about what “green” actually means.
Flores recently sat down for a chat about the Green Exchange, the prospects for green development in Chicago, and his political aspirations.
How did this come about?
Several years ago I remember watching TV, and it was either PBS or one of the public access channels, and it was a tribute to a local business doing well. And I thought, Wow, this is great—for once we’re getting news about someone in the manufacturing business doing well! Unbelievably, a month or so later, I got a call from the owners of the company. It was for a meeting. And I remember thinking, This is either going to be really good, or it’s going to be so bad. They came into my office downtown, and they were basically there to tell me about (a) the fact that they were closing their doors, and (b) to gauge my potential support for a zoning change for the purposes of converting that into a residential project. I was upset.
I started thinking about the program I’d just seen a month ago, and I even asked them about it: ‘Weren’t you guys doing good?’ And they said, ‘Did you see the end of the program?’ And I said, ‘I didn’t.’ Apparently they’d been talking about their challenges with competing with China, and the Chinese had started producing the same quality lamps but for a fraction of the cost, and they were just no longer competitive.
A task force was formed composed of workers of the Cooper Lamp building, the Teamsters, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, the LEED Council, a neighborhood church, and residents. My office became part of it. At first no one envisioned the Green Exchange. It was more along the lines of, ‘Can we bring in another manufacturing facility? Can we convert that into a car dealership? Can we convert it into a grocery store?’ There was even a discussion about converting that building into a charter school for the trades.
Ultimately the property was sold to Baum Development. And then I met a guy named Barry Bursak who’s very tied in to the sustainability movement. Barry indicated that he was going to be opening a green furniture-making company, and he wanted to talk to me about finding space in the ward. The first thing that came to mind was Wicker Park—I’m thinking, the Milwaukee Avenue corridor, it’s like hipster central. And he said to me that he was concerned the rental prices and property values were a little out of his range. So I put him in touch with the Baum people.
They met. And something happened, because the next thing you know, I get a call and they’re talking about this exciting new concept and it’s the first of its kind in the country—why not just simply create a very large, self-sustaining green business community under one roof? And redevelop the building, retrofit it, in a way that it has some green building certification, create a Web site, create some cross-marketing opportunities for new entrepreneurs, and then take advantage of the capacity that they’re all creating for each other? The thought being that if you’re looking to go eat at a green restaurant, you’re more likely to be a conscientious consumer about the home-improvement products you’re purchasing. Or even perhaps do your financial services with a green bank—they’re actually putting a green bank in there.
Had you previously been interested in green business development?
It wasn’t just the fact that Barry met with Baum that made me realize the potential of green—it was the manufacturing plant closing its doors, and the impact that can have in a community. There were about 110 employees at the Cooper Lamp plant, most of them Latino and eastern European; for many of them English was a second language. One day they’re working, and all of a sudden they get a notice that their job is gone. And the only thing they’ve ever done is work on some assembly line putting together a component that eventually goes to making a lamp.
For me that underscored the need for confronting the challenge that other main streets are facing every day, and that is the erosion of our traditional manufacturing base. What are we going to do as a country, as a society, to respond? Do we just throw in the towel and say we’re going to convert to a solely service-oriented economy? I think we would be foregoing an incredible opportunity for a new age of prosperity, a new age of opportunity, a new age where working folks really have a chance for upward mobility again.
And now you want to make the Addison Industrial Corridor “green” as well?
We are undertaking a study with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the [Chicago] Department of Planning, the [Chicago] Department of Transportation, my office, alderman Eugene Schulter's office, and alderman Richard Mell’s office in trying to figure out how it is we can revitalize this industrial corridor and try to figure out its future uses. I’ve been trying to make the case that what we should do is take the approach we did with the Green Exchange.
Sometimes it’s just about branding, right? So let’s make a commitment and say this area is going to be designated a special green enterprise zone or sustainable industrial corridor. Let’s actually redevelop the corridor with green public infrastructure, getting the companies to be more energy efficient, and to also evaluate how it is that they do business from within—how it is that they treat their employees. What is their impact with their local community? And looking at opportunities of parlaying that into attracting companies that are, for instance, manufacturing wind turbines or solar panels. Someone’s studying algae as we speak right now and trying to figure out how to convert that into biofuel. We have to attract those places.
This all sounds promising. But to move any of this along you’ve had to call a bunch of people and get them together—all the layers of politics and bureaucracy. Is this the only way it can happen, one block or project at a time?
I think the way it germinates is by spreading the word about this kind of activity. Then you get into some kind of competition, but it’s a healthy competition—how can we outdo each other at making the earth healthier?
Now, just down the street, east of here, is Lathrop Homes, which is an old community. The way it’s laid out is progressive for subsidized housing, but the reality is that it needs to be rehabilitated. It’s also a community where, notwithstanding everything around it, there is concentrated poverty. So given that it’s going to be redeveloped from a 900- to a 1200-unit complex, I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really implement the principles we’ve learned about sustainable urbanism. At Lathrop Homes we’re looking at the opportunity perhaps to come up with a new way to deliver energy. We may even try to reuse energy—how do we use reuse and recycling within the development of the community? And how do we make sure the residents are fully empowered and fully engaged in the process? Because of their proximity to one another—Lathrop Homes, the industrial corridor, the Green Exchange—we could develop a very powerful synergy and really serve as a model.
How much support do you get from the Daley administration on this? I know there’s a certain level of interest in going green, but there are also obstacles on the way, whether it’s budget deficits, a push for the Olympics, or something else.
The biggest challenge I’ve seen is in the coordination of the activities that are being undertaken by the Department of Environment and the Department of Planning and then our activities. The departments are doing some exciting things, and I think it’s unfortunate that not enough attention is given to them. Now what we need to do—and this is where I get frustrated—is to collaborate more with the legislative body and not to work in these silos where this exciting information and these exciting projects are not necessarily allowing for the engagement of others, or the collaboration of others.
Before we wrap this up: Are you running for Congress?
I haven’t made up my decision yet, but I’m seriously considering it.
You don’t live in the Fifth Congressional District, right?
I don’t, but I grew up in the district. Now, first and foremost, I am still alderman of the First Ward. Part of the ward is in the Fifth District. But I feel I need to be certain about why it is that I would want to run for Congress. I have been talking with my wife about it, and I’ll have to make a decision soon. I strongly believe that the residents should decide who their next congressman is. What I hope doesn’t happen, whether I’m in it or not, is to have the committeemen basically foisting a candidate on them.
Not that there's any history around here of—what did you call it?—'foisting.'
You like that? I paid $100,000 for my legal education.