Residents and Advocates Voice Concerns about Lack of Vision for Damen Silos Site

View of the Damen Silos from the Canalport Riverwalk.

Aa meeting Tuesday, August 22 about the pending demolition permits for the Damen Silos along the South Branch of the Chicago River, the overwhelming sentiment of public comments was that the process shaping the future of this important river-edge site lacked imaginative, community-centered, and visionary thinking. 

Over 100 local residents, environmental justice groups, political leaders, conservation and historic preservation advocates attended the meeting, including Friends of the Chicago River’s planning team. The Chicago Department of Buildings hosted the meeting at the Arturo Velasquez Institute. According to a story in Block Club Chicago, “The permits are under review. If they are issued, demolition would take about four months, depending on the weather.” Public comments included concerns that the process for the site so far represented “an immense lack of imagination” and “that until we outline a better future for the site, we should take a pause before destroying the past.”

Friends agrees and sees this as a once in a lifetime restoration opportunity along the South Branch of the Chicago River. This site’s prominence as a gateway to the communities that surround the South Branch and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal requires creative and future-focused thinking that leverages the extensive riverfront to provide ecological and community benefitting improvements to the river and adjacent land, and should not be treated as cookie cutter development.

The site is located at 29th Street and Damen Avenue, covers 23 acres, and has almost a half mile of river frontage. It is located directly adjacent to the recently improved Canalport Riverwalk, is near the Park 571 Boat House, and is just west of the study area for a vision plan led by the Chicago Department of Transportation that will create a connected system of parks and river edge trails. The data in Friends’ Natural Solutions Tool, created through our Greater Chicago Watershed Alliance, reinforces the need for thoughtful investment here. It shows that over 50% of the residents within a 10-minute walk of the site are low income, and that the area receives a disproportionate burden of environmental and public health challenges.

In December, the state of Illinois, which owned the property since 1928, sold the land to MAT Limited Partnership. Prior to the sale, Friends of the Chicago River and many of our partners urged the state to halt the sale. The new owner is proposing demolishing all the structures on the site to ready it for development. The intent of Tuesday’s meeting, according to the City, was to “provide updates on the demolition permit application and plans to protect the environment and public health throughout the demolition process” including safe demolition, oversight, dust control measures and health protections as an environmentally complex demolition.

Friends has concerns about the demolition process itself including how the proposed approach to use barges to catch debris will be monitored to protect water quality and how the river edges will be protected during the proposed demolition process. Residents at the meeting demanded more transparency during the demolition to be better informed about potential health hazards that could result from the removal of hazardous materials. In response, the City of Chicago’s Department of Public Health described new policies that have been enacted to address these concerns.

Friends believes the approach for the Damen Silos site should be part of a broader river corridor vision for ecological and community health. We urge all those involved to lay out a future for this site that emphasizes ecological urban design excellence – heavily focused on the potential overlapping benefits of nature-based solutions to improve public health, provide recreational space, clean the air and water, as well as support local economic growth. These concepts form the basis of Chicago River Corridor Development Plan (adopted in 1999), the Our Great Rivers vision plan (2016) and the Chicago River Design Guidelines (adopted 2005 and updated in 2019) that lay out the requirements for all waterways planned developments.

The South Branch deserves the same access and attention to ecological design and restoration that North Branch has benefited from for years. Several residents who spoke at the meeting expressed similar concerns, calling for the City to recognize that the community wants to have access the river’s edge, calling for recreational uses, ecological protection, and park uses. One area resident voiced, “We deserve nice things on the South Side.” We agree.