Credit: Fernando Tomás from Zaragoza, Spain/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Next Tuesday the city’s Community Development Commission is expected to sign off on a $60 million project that’s symbolic of the region’s shifting economy and energy needs: a deal between the city and energy giant Exelon to turn a polluted, long-unused former industrial site into the biggest urban solar power facility in the country.
Assuming the CDC signs off, the project is likely to go before the City Council on July 29. City officials say it could be in operation by the end of 2009.
The project has received accolades and glowing coverage since it was unveiled on Earth Day. In fact, if the facility generates half as much electricity as the buzz it’s already unleashed, it will be a model for cities across the country, particularly in the Rust Belt. 
But this is Chicago, and it probably won’t surprise many people out there to hear that the early stages of the project have been advanced with limited transparency or legislative oversight. It’s yet another example of how Daley administration officials don’t like to talk about what they’re up to until the deal’s done—their way.
First, the good stuff: The facility will be built on a 39-acre plot of land in West Pullman, on the far south side, that once was home to a large International Harvester plant. The site has been vacant for more than three decades now, and city officials say it’s attracted little interest over the years because it’s polluted with dangerous toxins like asbestos, lead, mercury, and PCBs; heavy concrete and asphalt foundations cover much of the property; and storage tanks are buried underground. Cleaning up the site will cost millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, Exelon’s CEO, John Rowe, has been on a campaign to make his company greener. On its own the south-side solar facility won’t radically alter our energy system—its 32,800 panels will generate enough electricity to supply an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 homes a year, a fraction of the million-plus in Chicago. But Exelon is pitching it as one part of a broader plan. And the city sees it as a powerful green-living demo project—like the garden atop City Hall—as well as an economic development tool for a struggling neighborhood.
The solar farm “will be visible from the air as travelers fly into and out of Midway Airport,” Molly Sullivan, spokesman for the city’s Department of Community Development, said in an e-mail. “It will serve as a landmark and source of pride for the West Pullman and greater Chicago communities and space will be provided for visitor information.”
And yet …
On May 7 city officials offered a brief overview of the plan to the City Council’s energy and environment committee. They said Exelon will lease the property from the city for 25 years and take on cleanup expenses. As many as 200 people will be employed during construction, which will use regionally produced materials, including steel tubing made on the south side.
Most aldermen were supportive; Carrie Austin , whose 34th Ward contains the former plant, was ecstatic. “I’m grateful to God that Exelon chose this site,” she said.
John Pope, whose nearby 10th Ward includes hundreds of acres of vacant industrial land, could hardly bear the news. “To be honest, Alderman Austin, I’m a little jealous.”
“I think we’re all envious of this particular project,” added Anthony Beale, alderman of the Ninth Ward, another once-industrialized area that now has vast open expanses.
But the enthusiasm waned a bit once aldermen started asking for details, because the administration wouldn’t provide many.
They did make it clear that aldermen weren’t being asked to weigh in on the whole project—Exelon just needed to be granted immediate access to the property so they could get work under way. At some point down the road they’d come back to the committee with specifics about the lease agreement.
The matter was urgent, aldermen were told, because Exelon wouldn’t go through with the project unless it received loans and credits under the federal stimulus plan. And the deadlines for qualifying were approaching fast.
“We want to make money with this,” said Mike Freeman, an official with Exelon. “But solar is difficult—it’s expensive.” So the company was hoping the federal government would underwrite 80 percent of the cost.
Beale didn’t sound quite so envious when he spoke up again. “You say you want to make money, but I hope you’re also going to save money with it and help city residents, since you are using city land.”
Freeman said Exelon hoped this would be the first of many similar projects that eventually helped bring energy prices down, though that might not be the case right away.
First Ward alderman Manny Flores, perhaps the council’s biggest green economy advocate, asked what the terms of the lease agreement would be. His colleague Virginia Rugai, who chairs the environment committee, interrupted to answer.
“I’m not sure they can speak to that now—that will be before us in June or July,” she said. “They just need to get access right now.”
“I understand, and I don’t want to pooh-pooh this project,” Flores said. “But to Alderman Beale’s point, there is a great sensitivity right now about the leasing of public assets, and this is a public asset.”
A city development official told him the lease was still being negotiated. Flores and Beale said they wanted regular updates about how the project was coming along and how many people it was employing. The committee then voted unanimously to give Exelon access to the site.
After the meeting I got in touch with Sullivan and asked what I thought was a simple question: why was Exelon leasing the site instead of buying it? She said she’d have to check.
In the meantime I got in touch with Exelon and asked them for more details, thinking that they’d be eager to talk about a project almost certain to help their image. I was wrong.
At first I was told I could get in touch with one of the people heading up the project. Then, after several weeks, I was told they couldn’t talk after all. “I checked with the project team, who informed me that they are still early in the development process with the city, and there is not much new to report at this time,” wrote Paul Elsberg, a company “communication specialist,” in response to one of my e-mails.
So I followed up with the same, straightforward question I’d had for Molly: why are you leasing this property instead of buying it?
“Exelon doesn’t really have anything new to report on the solar project in West Pullman, nor can I properly answer the lease vs. buy question,” Elsberg wrote. “On the latter issue, I think the City is the best place to seek information.”
Back to Molly Sullivan. It was now early July, and she could tell me that Exelon was prepared to lease the property for $110,000 annually for 25 years. But why aren’t they buying it?
After six e-mails back and forth, she said the property was leased because Exelon didn’t want to buy it.
“There has been little if any interest in the site over the years and due to the contamination, it is a complicated and difficult site to market and sell,” she said. “This lease meets the city’s needs as it brings the site back to productive use.”
All of which made sense to me—but why can’t we hear it straight? Whose idea was this? Were negotiations involved? Why couldn’t Exelon buy the property for $2.75 million if it’s planning to pay that much anyway? Just how much is Exelon required to clean up? What happens if the feds don’t come through with the money Exelon wants from them?
“The lease is not final,” Sullivan said, and added that no other details would be available until the CDC meeting.