Chicago Brownfields Initiative

The City of Chicago established the Chicago Brownfields Initiative in 1993 to acquire, assemble and rehabilitate properties, returning them to productive use. The Initiative links environmental restoration with economic development by cleaning up and redeveloping brownfields and by improving policies to promote private redevelopment of brownfields. The purpose of the Chicago Brownfields Initiative is to create jobs and generate tax revenues through redevelopment, thereby improving Chicago’s environmental and economic health.

Brownfields, as defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), are “abandoned, idled, or under-utilized industrial and commercial facilities where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.” Most brownfields are difficult real estate transactions, further complicated by environmental challenges. Environmental testing and cleanup can be costly and time-consuming. In many cases, public resources are needed to overcome these barriers to return brownfield sites to productive use so they no longer burden the environmental and economic health of the community.

The Chicago Brownfields Initiative began with a pilot cleanup and redevelopment program. The Brownfields Pilot Program was coordinated by the Department of Environment in partnership with the Mayor’s Office, the Department of Planning and Development (now Department of Housing and Economic Development), the Department of Buildings and the Department of Law. The purpose of the program was to gain vital first-hand experience assessing and cleaning up brownfield sites by preparing five former industrial sites for redevelopment. With several industrial development organizations, the City chose five sites to be tested and remediated for private development. All of the sites were either abandoned or City-owned. To gain the most from public dollars, the City focused on properties with the best combination of environmental factors and redevelopment potential.

The City funded the Brownfields Pilot Program with $2 million in general obligation bonds, expecting it would pay for environmental testing on the five selected properties and remediation on two. In fact, the City was able to return all five sites to productive use for a total of about $850,000. The City's assessment and cleanup of the sites also resulted in new construction activity and the creation of more than 100 jobs. The City's experience with these sites laid the groundwork for continued innovation with an aggressive large-scale cleanup program.