PILSEN — After years of growing food for Pilsen neighbors, El Paseo Community Garden is set to grow in size.
Last week, the City Council approved the sale of a city-owned, half-acre lot at 947 W. Cullerton Ave. next to the garden in Pilsen. The site was previously home to Loewenthal Metals and was remediated in 2013, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Paula Acevedo, a coordinator for the garden, said the new lot is a big win for the garden’s organizers and will allow them to bring more green space to the neighborhood.
It’s especially important because neighbors have used the vacant lot recreationally for picnics, cookouts, a play area and a dog run since it was remediated seven years ago, Acevedo said.
“This means a lot because there’s been a lot of development in the immediate area,” Acevedo said. “The property was zoned for residential, so there was always a fear within the community that this would be developed into another luxury condo building.”
El Paseo Community Garden is part of the NeighborSpace, a nonprofit urban land trust that supports community gardens across Chicago. The volunteer-run garden was founded as Growing Station on Sangamon between Cullerton and 21st streets in 2009, and it was renamed as El Paseo Community Garden in 2013.
The plot was sold to NeighborSpace for $1, according to a city press release.
The Loewenthal facility operated as a lead and zinc smelter and a scrap metal dealer in the 1940s. The smelter stopped operating in the 1950s, according to the EPA.
At some point, there was a fire at the facility and the building was razed. The demolition debris was used to fill the basement, and it was buried, EPA officials said.
The EPA was called in in late 2011 to examine the site and found high levels of lead, arsenic, copper, mercury and zinc in the soil. The cleanup took place between June and September 2013.
The remediation occurred after the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO), a volunteer environment group, pressured the EPA to clean up the site, according to a WBEZ report.
El Paseo is home to a community garden, an apiary, permaculture site and The Hive — an outdoor classroom created in partnership with nonprofit The Human Scale.
With a grant from AARP, the Human Scale will build another space dubbed El Convivio — or The Gathering — which will include a picnic table, a fire pit, an outdoor grill and an outdoor kitchen. The aim is to increase accessibility to seniors.
Later this month, the community garden will host an open house at the garden to start collecting feedback on what neighbors would like to see the plot of land used for.
Among other ideas, part of the site could host a children’s nature play garden.
After plans are finalized with neighbors, garden organizers will seek grants and plan the redevelopment of the site, ideally over the next three years, Acevedo said.
Earlier this year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded the group $15,000 as part of LISC Chicago’s Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards for creative place making. The funds from the award will also be used towards the redevelopment of the site.
In thinking about the future, Acevedo hopes to work with Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) to create a coalition of neighbors to help bring more green space to the neighborhood.
“I don’t know if it’s a pie in the sky, but there are so many vacant lots — and with developers are coming in — maybe there’s a way we can turn those into green spaces like with this lot,” Acevdeo said.
Learn more about the El Paseo Community Garden here. The open house will take place 2-4 p.m. Oct. 24.
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