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By Scott Jacobs

In a derelict old meat packing plant near the Chicago Stockyards, John Edel has a vision for a new kind of factory in Chicago, one that manufactures food. He sees a vertical garden hanging off rows of meat hooks; water tanks filled with tilapia feeding nitrates into adjoining aquatic lettuce beds; shared kitchen facilities for Chicago’s growing band of locally-sourced food suppliers; and a local brewer, baker, and ice cream maker. Whatever.

Operating independently but working in concert, Edel believes one business will supply the other. But here’s the beauty of it: they will generate tons of organic waste, enough, he hopes, to power a biogas-fed turbine that will take the building “off the grid” – requiring no outside energy to operate, and producing no waste to dispose of.

Edel doesn’t just see this. He’s making it happen in a 93,500 square-foot building on 46th street he has re-christened “The Plant.”

Urban Farming in Chicago

With the strong support of Mayor Emanuel, Chicago recently leapt into a growing urban agriculture movement with both feet. The city council approved one ordinances authorizing urban farming in Chicago,  and another creating new rules for shared kitchen. Together, they redefine permitted activities in manufacturing districts to allow commercial production of plants and fish in hydroponic and aquaponic gardens, change a host of health department rules, and allow chefs and small food producers to share kitchen facilities on a permanent or temporary basis.

The Plant happens to be one of only two existing facilities that qualify on both fronts. (Iron Farm, home of the non-profit Growing Power, is the other.) And the funny thing is Edel is not even a farmer. He prefers to think of himself as a designer of sustainable manufacturing.

An Industrial Johnny Appleseed

Edel, 42, is a quirky guy. Tall and thin, he sports a rough stubble beard that makes him look like a modern day Johnny Appleseed. But that’s where the comparison ends. “I don’t have any real interest in being a farmer,” he says. “I did this because I love old factories so I’m always looking for ways to save, or salvage, or just keep them standing.”

That fascination with old factories began 35 years ago when he was a boy in Rogers Park, and his parents would take him to the Garfield Park Conservatory. He would sit in the atrium, he remembers, sketching pictures of the plants growing up along the rusted girders.

“This was before Garfield Park was restored, and you can see I was thinking more about palms and banana trees, but I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind forever,” he says. “I just find the combination of plants and girders really, really interesting.

Edel’s architectural interest earned him an MFA in industrial design from the University of Illinois Chicago, but artistic talents took him into television computer graphics. That’s when I met him in 2000 during his stint as the lead designer of 3-D virtual sets at the Chicago production house Post Effects.

At night and on the weekends, he would leave the virtual world and scour the area around Bubbly Creek, the Chicago river branch behind the Stockyards where meat packers would dump cattle carcasses, looking for an abandoned industrial space he could buy cheap, and reshape into his vision of the factory of the future. He had only one ironclad criterion: it had to have an adjoining railway spur where he could park the Pullman car he dreamed of someday buying.

Bubbly Dynamics

He finally found it when he stumbled on the old Lowe Paint warehouse at 1048 W. 37th Street. The 24,000-square-foot building once served as the headquarters of Scooter World, but was better known in the city department of planning as Little Beirut.

Edel formed a company called Bubbly Dynamics to buy it in 2002. No sooner did he take possession than he discovered a white motorcycle gang run by a man named Cowboy was living in the building, barricaded behind old motorcycle parts. At night, they would explode cardboard boxes of acetylene on the loading dock and shoot out the neighbors windows; during the day, they’d get into mean and murderous fights among themselves over small sums of money .

Sheriff’s deputies had to evict them. When they left, Edel  attacked the building with a cadre of friends toting sledgehammers. (His demo parties were legendary.) Bringing the building back to life took four years. One reason was that Edel insisted on salvaging anything that could be re-cycled. His crew pulled nails from old boards to reuse them in the interior decor, stacked bricks on pallets for resale, and, if they found an old industrial machine with no apparent use, saved it for display as lobby art.

In the process of re-imaging the place, Edel experimented with all manner of energy-efficient building materials, a microprocessor controlled condensing boiler, hydronic water pumps zoned to control heat and air conditioning, and high-efficiency lighting systems. He built a small aquaponic garden in the basement to learn more about how it really worked, and planted the roof with varying shades of greenery that, when viewed from a Google Earth camera, resolve into the face of his daughter Zoe.

Today, his Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center has about a dozen small business tenants, including artists, a small bicycle manufacturer, a screen-printing company, metal fabricator and metal finishing firm. But the adjoining Pullman car that spawned the dream never materialized because railroad officials wouldn’t approve the access route. And Edel was itching to move on to bigger things.

“A Farm and Something Else”

The Plant at 1400 W. 46th Street is four times the size of Edel’s first building, and his plans for it are four times more ambitious.

His experience building out Bubbly Dynamics showed him that as much as he did to save energy, he still didn’t have a way to generate it, and thus fulfill his longtime ambition to operate off the grid. So he started looking for a second building––with his childhood sketches still rattling around the back of his head.

“I knew I wanted to do a farm and something else,” he said. He didn’t know exactly what that “something” but a brewery was always part of the original concept. Why? Because a brewery generates high concentrates of distilled grain waste that are ideal for making biogas, and Edel had become convinced that bio-fuels were a potent source of manufacturing energy.

His search for the right building took another four years. He negotiated with the Board of Education to buy one of their Pershing Road properties, but the deal fell through. At his daughter’s play group, he started unburdening his woes to another mother who was a real estate agent. (“You want to get something done, go to play group,” he jokes.) The next day, she showed him the old Peer Foods meat packing plant.

A Piece of Chicago History

The Plant was built in 1903 by the Wm R. Perrin Company to manufacture fine slaughterhouse tools for the nearby stockyards. In 1925, it was sold to the Buehler Brothers chain of meat markets who converted it into a meat packing plant for their line of fresh and smoked ham and bacon. When Buehler Brothers expanded into wholesale distributing in 1944, they changed the name to Peer Foods and the heirs still operate the company under that name, doing $150 million a year in sales.

After 70 years operating under U.S. Agriculture Department approval, building code violations were beginning to compromise Peer Food’s health safety certification. In 2006, it moved its operations to a new factory in Indiana, and 400 Chicago jobs went with it.

When Edel saw the building four years later, the roof leaked, the smokers were malfunctioning, some of the floors were cracked and he could see butcher knives still stuck in the walls. It was perfect. He offered to buy it for the “strip and rip” price of $525,000 (roughly $5 a square foot) but he had no desire to gut the building. All the careful currying of favor with the USDA – the washable walls, the stainless steel counters, the sanitary pathways from food prep areas to the loading dock – were in place. This was a piece of Chicago history too good to throw away.

Shared Kitchens

Edel found his first anchor tenant almost immediately. The New Chicago Brewing Company has taken 19,000 square feet on the first floor for a brewery, bottling operation and tasting room that will open next Spring. His second tenant, 312 Aquaponics, moved in this August. They design and sell aquaponic systems, including custom software to monitor and control the continuously flowing water system. The water runs through a bio-filter that separates out the nitrates to fertilize the vegetable trays and re-cycles back to aerate the fish tanks.

Edel has moved his own fish-vegetable farm into the basement, and will soon open another experimental mushroom farm there. But that still leaves him with 60,000 square feet of empty space.

While he was clearing the debris out of the old factory, Edel was paying particular attention to the problems his friend Zina Murray was having trying to open a shared kitchen in Logan Square. After rehabilitating a storefront to serve as an event space and temporary kitchen for many of Chicago’s most innovative chefs, she found herself besieged by city health inspectors. Over a two-year period, she underwent 19 health inspection visits (versus two for a typical Chicago restaurant).

In her adversity, Edel saw opportunity. If he could design a commercial facility that met all the sanitary and anti-rodent provisions of the building code, chefs, bakers, caterers and other small food processors could, under their own license, could rent space from The Plant on a daily, monthly or annual basis to do what they did best: make good food.

And it all fit in his master plan.

Taking The Tour

I took a tour of The Plant last week with Melanie Hoekstra, an environmental lawyer who manages the building. You can still smell the hickory aroma of the meat smokers. Glass blocks pulled from the windows in favor of double-insulated thermal paints stand neatly stacked on pallets waiting for re-use as conference room dividers; and yes, carpenters could be seen pulling nails from boards destined to be used elsewhere.

The tour snaked through hallways and industrial spaces being retro-fitted for food service tenants. In one, she explained how The Plant plans to create a vertical farm with plant roots dangling through holes in foam boards that look like floor-to-ceiling pup tents. Metal halide lights will gently cross above on the old meat hook rails––their motion timed to the dawn to dusk passing of the sun––while nitrate-filled water trickles down from above. The process, she says, will yield 4 to 6 times as many crops per square foot as an outdoor farm.

In the basement, she shows off The Plant’s own aquaponic water system. It takes roughly 18 months to grow a tilapia fish from a fingerling to a 1-pound mature adult, she says, but this one––the first to be installed in Chicago––is nearing the point where it can produce 160 pounds of fish and 500 Kale, Arugula and Basil plants and every two months.

The Anaerobic Digester

She takes us into the bowels of the building, otherwise known as the boiler room. The highlight of the tour must be imagined, for now. This is where all of Edel’s system planning will come together.

Next February, thanks to a $750,000 grant from President Obama’s Recover and Re-investment Act, cranes will lift into place a re-furbished military jet engine that will provide all the heat and electricity for the building. Soon after, thanks to another $750,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Edel will build an “anaerobic digester” just outside the building to provide all the bio-fuel needed to make the building energy self-sufficient.

The anaerobic digester is an enclosed circular tank that will take all the waste the brewery, the farm beds and food service operations produce and divide them into fertilizer and bio-fuel. (“Think of it as a giant digestive system,” Hoeckstra says.) It will have the capacity to handle 32 tons of waste a day, so Edel hopes other food producers in the area will contribute theirs as well.

By 2013, if all goes according to plan, The Plant will be a self-sustaining manufacturing center for the production of fresh, organically grown Chicago foods. No coal, oil or nuclear energy will be needed to keep it operating. No waste products will be needlessly tossed into landfills. It will be, as he dreams, a “net zero” drain on the environment that makes America a better place.

And let’s hope he is successful because there’s a railway spur right next to The Plant that’s the perfect place to park the Pullman car of his dreams.


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