PILSEN — Neighbors of Bubbly Creek Wednesday night railed against a plan to relocate a food processing and distribution plant to a strip of riverfront property in Pilsen.
A two-hour long meeting about the proposal along the South Fork of the Chicago River got heated — and ended only when a Chicago Park District worker shut off the lights at the community meeting, which was held at the nearby Eleanor Street Boathouse at Park 571 in Bridgeport. The abrupt darkness came over the objections of two aldermen in the room, who said it was a hazard for the people still debating the plan.
The debate centered over the Cougle Commission Company’s plan to move from Fulton Market to a strip of riverfront property wedged between Ashland Avenue and the Orange Line.
During Wednesday’s meeting, residents demanded to know whether something other than an industrial building — including a residential development — was being considered for the site. They also asked how the Bubbly Creek-facing Cougle building would impact their nearby homes in the 11th and 25th wards.
“This is being presented as a done deal,” one neighbor said. “Isn’t there an opportunity to revise the plans?”
Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) said this was the only viable proposal for the site, which has long been zoned for industrial use as part of a planned manufacturing district. He and Ald. Patrick D. Thompson (11th), who co-hosted the meeting, both assured they would work to address neighbors’ concerns, but had no intention of scrapping the project.
“Are there tweaks we can make? Yes,” Thompson said. “Is this an opportunity to say, ‘No, we don’t like this plan at all?’ Absolutely not. This is the type of use that is appropriate.”
As the discussion became increasingly heated, Department of Planning project manager John Molloy chimed in.
“This is recognized as an industrial parcel across the street from major industrial parcels with a lot of truck traffic,” Molloy said. “Residential use here would cause such a conflict, we could not [do it].”
What is planned for the 2.83-acre former Valspar site is a 33,280-square-foot building that would be white with blue accents and red Cougle lettering, with two parking lots for cars and trucks covering one-third of the space.
Anchoring the riverfront would be a narrow strip of park land with trees, native grasses, bird boxes and a 10-foot-wide trail with the potential to extend far past Bubbly Creek as part of the city’s initiative to create a continuous riverfront path that spans the waterway. The green space would take up 40 percent of the site and would be accessible to the public 24/7, with lighting overnight as a safety measure.
Cougle purchased the site in June, with hopes of relocating to Pilsen by December 2020 — its deadline to vacate the Fulton Market location.
To officials, the project is a chance to grow a 146-year-old, family-owned Chicago business with a vested interest in its South Side workforce and bettering its community. Cougle, which employs about 70 people, processes chicken, veal, eggs, beef, pork and produce, and distributes to catering companies, hotel chains, local restaurants and businesses like Popeyes, Cisco and Great Western Beef.
“We can’t push industry out of the city of Chicago,” Thompson said. “We can work with those companies to be more efficient and make them work better for us, but we have to see where we can have that balance.”
Neighbors, including several who live in townhouses built in 2015 near the east side of the river, said they feared the Cougle site would increase noise and light pollution for a block already surrounded by the Stevenson Expy, Orange Line and freight rails, and a bustling Ashland Avenue across the river.
But officials said cutoff fixture lighting was designed to face downward and not extend much past the site, and the level of noise from an estimated maximum of six trucks per day was unlikely to surpass noise from other sources.
One neighbor said she wanted the building’s design to better match her modern, angular town house on Hillock Avenue and the Studio Gang-designed Park No. 571 boathouse.
“I realize I’m no Jeanne Gang,” said architect Dan Tyler, who specializes in food industry and commercial design. “This is pretty utilitarian, and we typically design buildings for the use inside them. We did the best we could.”
As the meeting pushed toward 8 p.m. Wednesday, a Park District employee began stacking chairs even as some residents remained seated, talking about their concerns.
Some of the neighbors were arguing with officials in the room, and the one main discussion devolved into a series of separate, fractured discussions. That’s when a Park District employee shut off the lights and yelled that the park was closed.
Despite both aldermen and the city planning officials telling him the darkened room was a hazard for the 15 people remaining, the lights weren’t turned back on, and eventually the neighbors left the boathouse.
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