One of the biggest challenges in trying to rebuild the economy of the industrial midwest is to find new uses for property that once housed factories and mills and now sits idle, yielding no tax revenue or jobs. Lots of it is polluted and needs to be cleaned up before it can be developed–remediation of the average brownfield site costs $500,000 to $1 million, and Chicago alone has an estimated 1,000 of them. Some have been easier to turn around and reuse than others.

But there are ambitious plans in the works for one of the biggest–the 600-acre site of the former U.S. Steel South Works mill, on the south lakefront from 79th Street to the Calumet River.

At its peak more than 20,000 people worked at the mill, but it shut down for good in 1992 after more than a decade of decline. (Click here for a short history of the mill.)

Over the last couple years U.S. Steel and several partners have put together a plan to turn the tract into what amounts to a new neighborhood, with 17,000 housing units, a million square feet of retail, a marina, and some “sustainable” features like LEED construction and perhaps even offshore windmills. Despite some recent snags related to the crummy economy, developer McCaffery Interests says the plans are slowly getting under way.

Right now, though, the property is a mostly empty expanse of slag that’s going to need taxpayer help to turn habitable. McCaffery is currently working with city officials on plans to rezone the area for residential and retail use and to create a tax increment financing district that would cover the costs of infrastructure such as roads and sewer and water lines.

I recently had a chance to visit the site. Here are a few glimpses of what it looks like now.


This old office building sits right inside the entrance to the site at 87th Street. It’s the last of the 160 buildings that once made up the massive mill complex. On the side of the building hangs a clock with “South Works Credit Union” printed on its face. The hands have stopped at 2:05.




This plate was salvaged when one of the main mill buildings was demolished several years ago. It will likely be used again in the new development.




Most of the site is simply open space right now, covered in bare soil, prairie grasses, and small brush and trees–which is itself a big change from the barren landscape of just a few years ago. The entire space was made of slag (and some construction debris) that mill operators dumped into the lake to create more land; in order to make it suitable to put homes and parks on, state and federal officials came up with a plan to clean up and restore the space by covering it with a couple feet of topsoil dredged from Peoria Lake downstate. 

Before the redevelopment is done, according to McCaffery project manager Nasutsa Mabwa, the site will features nature trails that wind through prairie grasses and trees. Homes won’t have basements. “You build up in a place like this, not down.”




The early stages of infrastructure construction are under way–a few roads have been graded and hydrants installed.



Mabwa says about 120 acres will be set aside as a lakefront park and turned over to the Park District. Benches have already been installed even though the “park” itself is now just dirt and old rail lines.




A few ruins of the mill are still standing, including some of the ore walls–structures 30 to 50 feet high and hundreds of yards long that once were used as giant holding bins for iron ore after it was loaded off ships.





More ore walls. Mabwa says the developers and city officials would like to keep the walls up and incorporate them into the park and residential community if it doesn’t cost to much to reinforce them.


The developers say they’re hoping to get the city’s go-ahead by fall, and construction work could start in the next year or two.