Chicago Plan Commission Approves Renovation of Old Warehouse Into Solar-powered Apartments
The Chicago Plan Commission approved Thursday a plan to renovate a vacant warehouse building in the Armour Square neighborhood on the South Side into dozens of solar-powered apartments. Developer A.J. Patton said the project will show how renewable energy can help transform old structures, cut residents’ utility bills and fight climate change.
Known as Solar Lofts, when complete the renovated building at 2556 S. Federal St. will have 47 apartments and include electric vehicle charging stations, rooftop solar panels, energy-efficient appliances, and other sustainability features more typically found in high-end new construction, but frequently left out of adaptive reuse projects, according to Patton, CEO of 548 Capital, which purchased the building in February for $3.8 million.
“People look at adaptive reuse projects and feel handcuffed when it comes to sustainability, so we may be missing opportunities,” he said. “But with Solar Lofts we will go well above and beyond what’s called for by the city’s building code and set the standard for adaptive reuse projects.”
Karen Weigert, director of the Baumhart Center for Social Enterprise & Responsibility at Loyola University and Chicago’s former chief sustainability officer, said the city needs more such projects.
“There are opportunities to make new and existing buildings net zero and healthy across the city,” she said. “If you think about all the buildings Chicago will have by the year 2050, most of them are already built. So, yes, we need adaptive reuse that helps create the decarbonized, decentralized and democratized energy system of the future.”
All commission members present supported the plan, which still needs full City Council approval. Commissioners and the local alderman praised the developer for tackling the renovation and ensuring the 90-year-old building’s preservation.
“This will take an old, dilapidated building and make it useful, in an area of the city that needs this kind of investment,” 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell told the commissioners.
The site at 2556 S. Federal St. began life as a printing plant for Rapid Roller Co., and in the 1960s was used by the Nation of Islam to publish its newspaper Muhammad Speaks. In addition to the new apartments, Patton plans to add a floor, as well as a rooftop terrace and amenities such as a dog run out back, all designed by Gregory Williams, president of Gregory Ramon Design Studio.
“There is no more sustainable, greener development than the reuse of existing assets,” said commission member and Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development Maurice Cox. “It’s been a pleasure to watch this project evolve.”
Solar Lofts will include 32 affordable units, 28 funded by about $5.2 million from developer Sterling Bay, Patton added. The money helped satisfy Sterling Bay’s requirement under Chicago’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance to provide affordable housing in exchange for securing approval to build the 30-story, 282-unit apartment tower it’s now developing at 160 N. Morgan St. in Fulton Market.
Developers frequently satisfy the ARO requirement by paying fees into the city’s affordable housing fund. But the 2021 reform of Chicago’s ARO, which had been criticized by housing advocates for not producing enough units, made the program more flexible, allowing developers to inject funds directly into ready-to-go developments such as Solar Lofts, said commission member and Commissioner of the Department of Housing Marisa Novara.
“This project is under the new ARO, and this is what it can do,” she said. “It is a 68% affordable development with no public subsidy.”
Solar Lofts will give residents the opportunity to live in an all-electric, efficient building powered by solar panels that cut energy costs, according to Patton, who is finishing up the renovation of a 28-unit mixed-income building at 1372 W. 79th St. in Auburn Gresham, which he also plans to outfit with solar panels.
He founded 548 Capital in 2016, naming it after the unit number of the Terre Haute, Indiana, Section 8 apartment where he grew up watching his mother struggle with out-of-control utility bills.
“Providing high-quality units with low utility bills is something I’m passionate about,” he said.
Patton said he began working on Solar Lofts last year after driving by the structure, just south of the South Loop and Chinatown, and sandwiched between the Dan Ryan Expressway, the Stevenson Expressway, the Metra train line, the Opera Lofts, a condo development, as well as other industrial structures.
“It was in this little nook, off the beaten path, but still in a dense part of town,” he said. “It was clean, in spectacular condition, but it had been vacant for years, and I thought this should be something greater.”
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