Renderings of Digital Cermak West, a data center planned for the Cermak Avenue corridor. Credit: Provided.

PRAIRIE DISTRICT — Neighbors are pushing back against a data center expansion planned for the South Loop.

Digital Realty wants to expand its campus at 350 E. Cermak Ave., near McCormick Place. The company first pitched the project in June 2022.

Digital Realty operates 10 data centers in the Chicago area and 275 across six continents. The existing center supports hundreds of companies, including Zoom and city services, housing storage systems and computing infrastructure for large organizations, allowing them to secure large amounts of sensitive information.

The $500 million expansion would include a new, 565,069-square-foot, 13-story building with seven data center suites between the third and ninth floors with a bridge connecting the new building with the existing one. A chiller plant would be installed on the 10th floor, with additional cooling towers on the roof. 

City officials said the Department of Planning and Development and the Chicago Department of Public Health were reviewing the proposal and asked the company to do its own air quality assessments and noise modeling.

Representatives from Digital Realty shared the results those studies at a packed community meeting last week hosted by Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

All of the cooling towers are sized to operate at a maximum of 80 percent for lower noise output, and a 21-foot-tall screen would surround them, with a 5-foot-tall parapet around the building’s edge, officials said. The generators would be on the south facing side of the building, away from residences, and there would be sound attenuators for all inlets and outlets of the generator rooms, they said.

But nearby residents believe the environmental impact would be disastrous and want the expansion stopped, citing research showing how much energy data centers consume and the amount of electronic waste the facilities create.

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Dozens of neighbors said their quality of life has been destroyed by the existing data center and fear another tower will only decrease their property values.

Tina Feldstein and her neighbors at Chess Lofts said they’ve been dealing with the sound of loud fans echoing through the air for years. Feldstein attended the town hall carrying a pillow covered in black specks — tar she said came directly from the data center.

According to data storage giant DataSpan, black dust is created when centers that are packed with equipment consume large amounts of power while giving off large quantities of heat in the process.

Feldstein and other residents have been circulating a petition to stop the project, collecting 680 signatures since launching it in May. They’re also concerned about the project impacting a nearby park.

“We already have so many experiences with the data center across the street that has been nothing but problems for the community. People are dealing with similar issues with the data center on 600 South Federal. We have many examples of years of bad acting from Digital Realty, and they don’t deserve the opportunity to put up another data center,” said Feldstein, who founded the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance in 2002. “You guys are sitting there talking about like studies and paper and what you think it’s gonna be, when we are living with this every single day.”

The city’s public health department did not respond to a request for comment.

Chess Lofts resident Tina Feldstein said the soot and tar from Digital Realty’s data center has been a problem for her for years and covers nearly all of her home furnishings.

Digital Realty representatives told neighbors they plan to have a liaison on standby to resolve any issues residents may have, but Feldstein and others said they were skeptical.

Another neighbor, Dr. Angela Ingram, told Block Club that for her and her husband, it’s about having a responsibility to the environment to press for ethical policies that would prevent harm “to our wellness as a community.”

Ingram pointed to a story from Virginia, where residents fought to stop a plan to redevelop 2,000 acres of rural land into a data center campus. After it was approved by then-Prince William County Board Chairperson Ann Wheeler, the politico lost her reelection bid to data center opponent Deshundra Jefferson in June.

In Arizona, one city explored the possibility of banning data centers outright before adopting strict zoning amendments defining their locations and operations.

“We see how they have been significantly impacted by data centers because of the sound and because of the pollution and how they had to take measures into their own hand. Now politicians are implementing policies, but it was after they went through the torture of having to live next to the data center. It was the same in Arizona, too,” Ingram said.

Motor Row, South Loop and McCormick Place as seen from above the Near South Side on July 26, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Dowell told residents she would take time to explore both sides of the issue, adding that she would not be rushed into a decision.

The neighbors are optimistic that Dowell will eventually side with them. All say that the data center would be better suited away from residential areas.

“Data centers are a pretty new infrastructure, so the long-term impacts of them are unknown. And because they’re unregulated, there aren’t a lot of policies out there to tell them where and how they can be built. Data centers are having a devastating impact on communities, and on the environment as well,” Ingram said.

In a statement to Block Club, Digital Realty spokesperson Helen Bleasdale said the company is “committed to working closely with the communities where we operate to minimize environmental impact and ensure our data centers meet local building standards.”

“We have ensured that our designs, which include a closed-loop water cooling system, are well within the noise regulations for the area and meet green building certification standards. Digital is targeting Silver LEED certification and has plans to source local renewable energy through power purchase agreements to fully offset the power used by the facility, making the data center a net-zero facility. Over the coming months we will continue speaking with the local community and Chicago City Council, to ensure any concerns are addressed,” said Bleasdale.

The project would be fully financed by the data company, creating 60-120 temporary construction jobs in the first and second phases and 30 permanent positions, company leaders said. The company plans to work with minority contractors as well, according to the representatives.

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