The Chicago Department of Planning & Development is working on a project that it hopes will reduce flooding while turning currently vacant lots into community assets — and it is starting in North Lawndale and West Humboldt Park.

In North Lawndale, it is working on vacant lots along the section of 16th Street between Springfield and Lawndale avenues, and the section of Ogden Avenue between Lawndale and Homan Avenues. In each case, DPD is teaming up with local community organizations to help maintain the lots and do some community programming. 

The project is currently in the early stages, but when it’s complete, some of the improvements will include a new public performance space, a play space for kids and a business incubator for entrepreneurs that want to get into urban farming. 

During Ald. Michael Scott’s (24th) Oct. 26 community meeting, which was held at UCAN headquarters 3605 W. Fillmore St, Michael Berkshire, DPD’s Green Projects Administrator, explained that one major drawback of Chicago sewers is that they use the same set of pipes to carry both the water that goes into faucets and the water that gets collected when it rains. 

“When we have heavy rain, those pipes get overwhelmed — they aren’t big enough,” Berkshire said. “If it also get high, it goes up and get into your street-level [building].”

That is why the Resilient Corridors program is trying to use the vacant lots to either send some of the water into the ground rather than into the sewers or collect the water before sending it into the sewers so it doesn’t get dropped all at once. 

Berkshire explained that the lots would use bioswales — landscape elements that are designed to take in water and filter out pollutants. They will include plaza areas with permeable pavement, so that water would seep into the ground instead of flowing toward the street. Even the trees they are planning to plant will pay a role.

“We’re going to plant a lot of new trees,” Berkshire said. “Trees are one of best ways to handle water, and the planning will also lower temperature [on the lots].”

On the 16th Street section, a total of five vacant lots are getting this treatment. The lot on the north side of the street, between Springfield and Avers avenues, will have a storage system where rain water will be stored and then gradually released into the sewers. 

The three thinner strips of vacant land on the south side of 16th Street, between Avers and Ridgeway avenues, will be designed to encourage play and exploration. Berkshire said that the city will put a “snake-like pattern” where kids will be able to walk over the stones. The existing drain pipe will be disconnected and the garden will take in water from the nearby alley. MLK Bloom Gardens will teach its own gardening and urban farming classes to local youth.

Finally, the vacant lot at the northwest corner of 16th Street and Lawndale Avenue would be turned into a community gathering space with a grove of “fruit bearing trees” in the back. It would collect storm water and release limited amounts of it into the sewers and, thanks to permeable pavement, some of the water will seep into the ground.

On Ogden Avenue, he said that there will be a “small pocket park” west of Millard Avenue. And on the south side of the street, between Thumbull and Homan avenues, DPD will be working with Chicago Botanical Garden to build an “incubator farm.”

The construction at all three corridors will cost a total of $5.7 million, which is largely covered through HUD’s community development block grant. 

Berkshire explained that, because it’s a city program that’s funded through HUD, it has to follow several rules about local hiring. 

According to the fact sheet he provided, 50 percent of all work hours must be done by Chicago residents, and at least 7 percent of those hours must be done by residents of the local community. 

Thirty-percent of the new hires must be part of HUD’s Section 3 program, which recruits local public housing and otherwise low-income residents to work on HUD-funded projects. At least 25 percent of the subcontractors must be minority-owned businesses, and at least 5 percent must be women-owned businesses. And employees must be paid the prevailing wage.

“We’re hiring everyone through [local alderman’s office], we’re working with them,” Berkshire said. “There will be opportunities for landscape folks, traffic people, etc.”

Berkshire said that, if the program does well on the three West Side corridors, DPD hopes to expand it further.

“We’re trying to prove with it – because this is kind of pilot project – that we can build these beautiful landscapes and they can be managed by the community,” he said. “I want to prove to city that they’re going to thrive, they’re going to survive, so we can build more. We still have to prove that we can do that.”


Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...