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Connecting the Dots: How Community Planning and Organizing Gave New Life to an Old Factory

The Green Exchange, on West Diversey Avenue just east of the Kennedy Expressway, is getting lots of attention these days, and for good reason. Coyote Logistics, which coordinates trucking capacity with national haulers, moved its headquarters to the former Cooper Lamp factory last year and recently announced that it’s hiring 400 more workers to join the 600 already on site. Jobs, jobs, jobs.

“Coyote is an example of the best that Chicago has to offer,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel on a recent visit to the building. “A cutting-edge firm that hires talented young people and gives them opportunities to advance and contribute to the city’s business fabric.”

Meanwhile, GreenChoice Bank has opened offices in the meticulously rehabbed early 20th century building at 2533 W. Diversey Ave., and other new tenants – from architects to event planners – are filling up the space. All claim to be environmentally conscious.

What’s not to like? A heretofore obsolete century-old factory building in a mainly residential area that’s home to well-paying, clean energy jobs is boosting the neighborhood’s tax base and enhancing the civic realm.

The old Cooper Lamp factory, in 2006, before renovation began.

Juan Francisco Hernandez

Goes to show that the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), developer David Baum, and a few others knew what they were doing back in 2005, when Cooper Lamp announced it was shutting down and that its 240,000-square-foot building was up for grabs.

At the time, LSNA, with help from LISC Chicago, was completing its quality-of-life plan for the neighborhood. Among its recommendations was to “work with local industrial councils to protect manufacturing jobs” and to “organize and advocate for industrial retention.” It mentioned the Cooper Lamp building in particular.

Crazy talk, right? Back then condos, not jobs, were the coin of the realm, and developers wanted to convert the property into hundreds of residential lofts. That was before subprime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations and 10 percent unemployment were facts of daily life.

Developer David Baum

Gordon Walek

Against the tide of market forces, the Cooper Lamps Task Force – an alliance of neighbors, veteran Cooper workers, LSNA leaders and the LEED Council (an agency that promotes industrial retention) - persuaded then-Ald. Manny Flores to support commercial use and Baum Development outlined its proposal for a renovated factory that would house showrooms, offices, retail shops and space for start-up companies.

“We don’t need more condos,” said Task Force leader Juan Gonzalez. “But we do need space for good jobs.”

Gonzalez, speaking a couple of years before the arrival of the greatest financial calamity to afflict the nation since the Great Depression, couldn’t have been more prophetic. Ditto for his colleague, Sandra Castillo. “When the history of the Green Exchange is written,” she said, “it will not only be a story of environmental and business innovation. It will also be the story of how strategic economic development preserved a diverse, working-class neighborhood.”

Establishing a cause-and-effect relationship in neighborhood redevelopment isn’t easy. Projects often take so long to complete that by the time they’re done, the people who started working on them are long gone and unavailable to provide that critical first draft of history. Not so with the Green Exchange.

LISC Chicago's Joel Bookman

Gordon Walek

“You can connect the dots in this instance,” said Joel Bookman, LISC Chicago’s director of programs. “Logan Square residents, LSNA, the LEED Council, David Baum and plenty of others saw the value of preserving a work place and creating jobs, and through careful planning and organizing did just that. This was a bottom-up project.”

Not that it was easy. The building sat empty for longer than Baum or anyone else would have liked. But LISC Chicago was an early funder. In addition to supporting LSNA through its New Communities Program, it made a grant to the LEED Council to assist in the redevelopment. It provided another grant that helped the redevelopment team attract a $500,000 federal grant. That money was used for low-interest loans and start-up financing to tenants with employees that met federal low-income standards. Meanwhile, the City of Chicago stepped in with critical financing through the TIF program.

“It is a victory in the sense that this community invested in a strategy to bring jobs to the neighborhood before the recession hit,” John McDermott, the New Communities Program organizer at LSNA, told the Sun-Times earlier this month. “But it comes several years later than we thought.”

Better late than never.





Posted in Economic Development, Logan Square


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