It’s not hard to figure out what’s on Manny Flores’s mind these days. Wherever the conversation starts—governmental transparency, the economy, garbage collection, his family life—at some point he steers it toward a sustainable business project called the Green Exchange. His enthusiasm builds until even a straightforward recitation of facts takes on the cadences of a closing argument to the jury: “You’ve got 270,000 square feet of space in an old industrial site. This is about the adaptive reuse of a building that’s been there nearly 100 years. But it’s not just bricks and mortar—you’re creating a new type of business community!”

Flores was elected alderman of the gentrifying First Ward in 2003, upsetting the machine-backed incumbent, Jesse Granato. In the years since then he’s established himself as a progressive pragmatist—he says he tries to build coalitions and pick his battles so he can get things done; his critics, including some activists who volunteered for him when he was first elected, say he’s turned into a wuss who’s afraid to make anybody mad.

But even his critics can’t dispute that over the last couple years Flores has become one of the City Council’s most vocal advocates for the environment—particularly in discussions about adapting Chicago’s old industrial properties as incubators for the “green jobs” the whole country’s been talking about lately.

Those jobs, to his mind, are in manufacturing. “Do we just throw in the towel and say we’re going to convert to a solely service-oriented economy?” he says. “I think we would be forgoing an incredible opportunity for a new age of prosperity.”

The project started by accident in 2005, when officials at the Frederick Cooper lamp company told him they were closing their plant at 2545 W. Diversey because it couldn’t compete with manufacturers in China. “They came into my office downtown, and they were basically there to tell me about (a) the fact that they were closing their doors, and (b) to gauge my potential support for a zoning change for the purposes of converting that into a residential project,” he says. “I was upset.”

Cooper had been making lamps there for almost 40 years, and before that, dating back nearly a century, the building had been used for manufacturing clothing. When Cooper closed, 110 people lost their jobs.

Flores joined laid-off workers, union leaders, neighborhood activists, and economic development experts in trying to come up with a plan for the property—and they wanted jobs, not condos. They considered bringing in a car dealership or grocery chain; a plan was even floated to turn the site into a school for the building trades.

While those conversations were still under way, developer Baum Realty bought the property and, through Flores, met with Barry Bursack, a sustainability advocate who was interested in renting space for an environmentally friendly furniture company. “The next thing you know, I get a call and they’re talking about this exciting new concept, and it’s the first of its kind in the country—why not just simply create a very large, self-sustaining green business community under one roof?” Flores says.

In other words, the building would become an incubator for “green jobs”—a place where sustainable businesses could set up shop and benefit from sharing ideas, marketing, and perhaps even customers. “The thought being that if you’re looking to go eat at a green restaurant, you’re more likely to be a conscientious consumer about the home-improvement products you’re purchasing, or even perhaps do your financial services with a green bank,” Flores says.

When the Green Exchange, as it’s now known, opens (which it’s currently slated to do this fall), it will house a dozen companies that employ about 400 people. Among the resident businesses will be an eco-friendly printer, a green-industry consulting firm, an economic development company, and a manufacturer that turns old tires into mulch, fuel, running tracks, and other products.

Meanwhile, Lathrop Homes, a public housing development a few blocks away from the Green Exchange, is set to undergo an extensive rehab. Residents and housing officials are still hashing out whether it will be converted into a mixed-income development, but either way, Flores is lobbying to incorporate elements of “sustainable urbanism,” such as a system to burn garbage for electricity.

But perhaps his most ambitious idea yet is to replicate the Green Exchange model in one of the north side’s largest manufacturing districts.

Like other manufacturing areas in Chicago, the Addison Industrial Corridor, which runs along the North Branch of the Chicago River from Diversey nearly up to Montrose, has been hit by closures and downsizing. City and state planning officials just commissioned a study to determine how the district can attract “cutting-edge industries including progressive manufacturers and state-of-the-art technology, life sciences and R&D facilities,” as the city’s proposal puts it. The plan that emerges should consider “short and long term sustainable development and manufacturing trends” and “best practices in green urban design” as well as “economic challenges.”

The study is expected to be finished later this year, and Flores says he’s eager to see what it comes up with. But he also wants to go further and find out if it’s feasible to set the corridor aside for sustainable industry. “Sometimes it’s just about branding, right? So let’s make a commitment and say this area is going to be designated a special green enterprise zone or sustainable industrial corridor,” he said. “Someone’s studying algae as we speak right now and trying to figure out how to convert that into biofuel. We have to attract those places.”

In recent months a wide range of municipalities—in New England, North Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, and California—have made plans for “green” business parks and districts, but what this means differs from one place to the next. Some will be built with recycled materials or incorporate energy-efficient design; others are targeting businesses that make eco-friendly products. Some are “green” in both ways. That’s what Flores imagines for the Addison Industrial Corridor, though he concedes that he hasn’t done much yet to figure out how viable it would be.

City officials are cautious if not outright skeptical. “While we’re doing everything we can to encourage green businesses and looking at all the options, it’s a little soon to say if an idea like that would fly,” says Molly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Community Development.

Flores himself already sees some obstacles, including the open question of what “green” means.

Some activist and business groups have started establishing their own standards. Green America, a national advocacy group, has created a directory of businesses that demonstrate “social and environmental responsibility”—and pay a membership fee. And in Chicago the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce will debut a sustainability rating system this week based on neighborhood businesses’ commitment to “people, planet, and prosperity.” Businesses that go through the evaluation process can put a decal on their door or window showing whether they scored one, two, or three stars.

Critics have dismissed such efforts as little more than green PR, and the debate is sure to intensify as government bodies try to set standards. Last fall the City Council held a hearing, at Flores’s request, to discuss a measure for certifying businesses as green, and aldermen, city officials, environmental advocates, and business leaders all agreed it was crucial for both ecological and economic reasons. “We should move on this and move quickly,” said George Nassos, director of the environmental management program at IIT. “If we have a standard like this in place it will draw the companies here that are truly environmental so they don’t have to compete with companies that are just greenwashing.”

Others, like Peter Nicholson, founder of the Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance, warned that they might be aiming at a moving target. “What may be green today may not be green later,” Nicholson said. “It’s a process, and it has to be updated regularly.”

The hearing ended with a pledge to create a task force. Flores said it’s met twice since then and intends to hold community meetings soon, and he’s optimistic it will come up with some serious proposals.

But not even leaders of the Green Exchange are sure it’s possible to create universal definitions. Phil Baugh, the director of community development for the exchange, says the tenants are selected on a case-by-case basis. “There’s no such thing as a definition of ‘green’ that cuts across all industries,” he says. “We do our own due diligence.”

Another obstacle: the economy. Given its grim state, other city officials aren’t quite ready to discount not-exactly-green jobs.

“I’d love some green jobs,” says 21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr. “I’d love some purple jobs. I just want some jobs.”

Brookins’s south-side ward has suffered double-digit unemployment for years, and since 2005 he’s been trying to win City Council approval to bring a Wal-Mart to a 50-acre open field that was once home to a steel mill. He says he hasn’t been able to interest any manufacturers in the site—”that train has left the station”—and he’s found that greener, high-tech companies are only interested in “trendier” areas. Big-box retail, he argues, is his ward’s best bet.

For more than a century the Tenth Ward, in the far southeast corner of the city, was the heart of Chicago’s heavy industry—a network of steel mills, manufacturing plants, supply warehouses, rail spurs, and shipping docks. Now most of the mills and factories are closed, and functioning facilities are surrounded by huge plots of open or abandoned land.

Tenth Ward alderman John Pope is intrigued enough by the idea of attracting green jobs that he’s reading The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems, by activist and Obama adviser Van Jones. But he’s already reached one conclusion: “There are no green jobs if there aren’t jobs.”

He explains: “Let’s say ‘green’ is fixing up a home with shingles made from recycled materials. But if there aren’t any roofs to repair, you can’t do it.” His focus is on trying to redevelop and rebuild an area that in places has been reduced to ruins. While he hopes to create some jobs in, say, green building construction, first he needs to find people interested in constructing something.

With an estimated 1,000 acres of unused industrial property, the ward is “a big opportunity,” Pope says. “And when I say ‘opportunity,’ I mean there’s lots of space, it’s relatively cheap, it’s equipped with infrastructure like gas and utility lines, and it’s close to the expressways, railroads, and port.” He also emphasizes that the neighborhoods on the southeast side are full of experienced workers, including tradespeople, and that large chunks of the ward are in tax increment financing districts and state enterprise zones that offer economic incentives for businesses that locate there.

Pope is eager to point to the places where activity has returned to fallow land: the 600-acre U.S. Steel site, a series of vast fields atop layers of slag, that’s slated to be converted into a new residential neighborhood and retail district; the old steel storage yard that now serves as a heavy equipment facility for Walsh Construction; the former loading area on the Calumet River that’s now used to store yachts.

“That site used to have 1,000 jobs; now it’s got about 100,” Pope says of the yacht storage yard. “That’s been one where we’ve said, ‘We’re not getting all the industrial jobs back.’ You’ve got to be selective, but not too selective.”

But where are the solar panel and wind turbine manufacturers?

Well, Pope hasn’t heard from them.

At least two turbine companies, Vestas-American Wind Technology and Acciona Windpower, do have business operations in the Loop. Officials for both companies say they opened offices here because it’s an international business city in the middle of the country, making it more efficient to travel across the country and work with parts suppliers, which are concentrated in the midwest.

But both picked other states for their manufacturing plants—Colorado for Vestas, Iowa for Acciona—after determining they had more to offer on a set of factors, from the “quality” of the local workforce to proximity to wind farms. Each of the three parts of Acciona’s wind towers, for example, are about 27 yards long, and company officials decided it would be too difficult to ship them out of congested areas. “I don’t think Chicago lent itself to our product,” says Adrian LaTrace, vice president and general manager of Acciona Windpower.

On the other hand, turbines are made up of thousands of component parts, some of which are produced here, and turbine manufacturers predict that their businesses will take off as the recession diminishes. “I do think the Chicagoland area has an appeal to manufacturers,” LaTrace says.

That would come as a relief to Flores, who worries that taxes and red tape sometimes make Chicago unappealing for manufacturers of all kinds. He says that’s exactly why the city needs to take deliberate steps to recruit green industry through innovative zoning, economic incentives, and the like.

“We have to develop a new economic development plan based on clean energy,” Flores says. “Sure, we just need jobs, period. But my perspective is, what’s working? When Cooper lamps closed, we didn’t have a lot of other interest, but now we’ve discerned that there’s a real potential for new jobs and sustainable growth in the clean-tech economy. We see real promise. I think it can be done.”v

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