Growing Industry From its Own Ashes

A new incubator for small business in a converted Chicago meatpacking plant

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The Plant

The ruins of dissolved industry stand tall and wide in cities across the Midwest. These buildings – former factories and plants – are scars of the past. But they can also be opportunities for the future.

One former meatpacking plant on the south side of Chicago is being redeveloped as an indoor farm, business incubator and food manufacturing plant. Dubbed The Plant, the 93,500 square-foot facility is in the process of being converted into a space where local businesses can take shape. It’s a major turnaround for the site, which had spent years sitting empty.

“There’s so much energy inherent in all these buildings. The bricks, the steel, all the work that went into physically building the building,” says The Plant's operations manager, Melanie Hoekstra. “Tearing them down would just leave a big gaping hole in the neighborhood.”

Known as Back of the Yards, this part of Chicago’s south side is a mix between industrial land and neighborhood. The Plant is on the outer edge of a vast industrial area, with rail lines and factories spreading out behind. Next door is a fat rendering plant, which Hoekstra says can sometimes make the whole area smell like, well, a fat rendering plant.

“It was kind of a sketchy place,” Hoekstra says. “Who knew what was going on in there all the years it was abandoned?”

But the Plant is also bordered by a residential area inhabited by largely working class Latinos. Hoekstra says this part of town is especially in need of new jobs.

“We’ve had a number of people come knock on the door and ask when we’re going to have jobs,” she says.

Unfortunately they don’t really have any jobs, not yet anyway. Only a few tenants have moved in so far. The eventual goal for the project is to create about 125 new jobs by creating a production facility where small businesses can come to grow.

Being a former meatpacking plant, the site is already geared for food production. The idea is to build on that history by creating small spaces where food-oriented businesses can set up production. A shared commercial kitchen can be rented, making it easier for entrepreneurs to launch food-related businesses without the hassle of building their own and getting the necessary license. Hoekstra foresees bakers or coffee roasters or caterers renting space in the facility.

One-third of the space is dedicated to an aquaponics farm, featuring a closed loop system of tilapia fish and vegetables. The production of this farm is so far minimal; two aquaponics consultancies are among the early tenants and they’re using the facility to model the technique.

At the core of the project is its goal to achieve net-zero energy use. Through a $1.5 million grant from the state, the non-profit behind The Plant is building an anaerobic digester and a combine heat and power system will run the facility. It will be run off waste from the aquaponic system plus food waste from the site. Grains from the brewery of one of the incoming tenants, the New Chicago Brewing Company, will provide a significant amount of the waste for the digester.

“This shows that you can build vertical farms indoors and use what is an energy intensive process, but you can do it through renewable energy sources,” Hoekstra says.

John Edel is the mind behind the project. Hoekstra says he’s almost obsessively passionate about the old industrial sites of Chicago, and has been working for years to give them new lives. As founder of another industrial reuse project, the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, Edel has been at the forefront of finding new ways to revive industry in the city while maintaining a strict sense of environmental sustainability.

The Plant offers a new path for the reuse of these sorts of sites. By taking advantage of its original food-related purpose and translating it for a smaller but more diverse marketplace, the project not only keeps the building alive but also the spirit of the industry that built it. Currently there are three tenants in the building. The brewery will begin building out its space next month, and a bakery will be moving in early next year. The process is slowly taking shape, but Hoekstra hopes that within a year or two The Plant will be fully occupied, and buzzing its way toward a new industrial heyday.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.