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Dutch Treat: Royals Salute Pullman’s Past and Future

The king and queen loved it … though David Doig and his Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives (CNI) are looking to deal more aces for Pullman.

King Wilhelm-Alexander and his Queen Maxima of the Netherlands toured the greenhouse atop Method soap's Pullman manufacturing plant in June as part of a two-day diplomatic/cultural/economic swing through Chicago.

Photos by John McCarron

That’s one take-away from a recent visit by Dutch royalty to the futuristic rooftop greenhouse atop the futuristic soap manufacturing plant newly sprung up in Pullman Park. The factory and greenhouse are part of CNI’s not-so-impossible mixed-use dream that ultimately will span 180 acres once dominated by a steel mill at 111th Street and the Bishop Ford/I-94 Expressway.

King Wilhelm-Alexander and his Queen Maxima toured the greenhouse in June as part of a two-day diplomatic/cultural/economic swing through Chicago.

Why visit Pullman? The attraction was two-fold.

Over a century ago, before it was a maker of steel and passenger rail cars, the area whereabouts was settled and cultivated by Dutch farmers who carted onions and potatoes up the Vincennes trail to a hungry and growing city. Only now, after years of industrial disinvestment and urban decay, a new style of agriculture – rooftop hydroponics – has come to Pullman. And it’s a style dominated by techniques and equipage imported from (Where else?) Holland.

So the king and queen spent much of their half-hour walk-thru in discussions with executives with greenhouse operator Gotham Greens as well as their Dutch vendors of hybrid seeds, climate controls and hydroponic hardware.

Doig, for his part, hovered in the background, never approaching the royal couple but silently beaming at the sheer improbability of it all. As soon as the royals departed, though, he was back on his smartphone, checking to see if the Treasury Department had announced winners in its latest round of New Markets Tax Credits. CNI had applied for another $5 million worth, and Dave Doig has no shortage of prospective deals those credits might leverage.

Once and future crossroads

Where some see a post-industrial wasteland, Doig sees Pullman as a rediscovered crossroads of the new global economy – an economy moving inexorably toward cost-efficiency and environmental sustainability.

“We’re not just on an expressway,” he explains. “We’ve got six major interstates converging within a few miles of here. We’ve got all five Class A railroads. We’ve got the Port of Chicago. We’ve got water.”

Method soap's futuristic Pullman manfacturing plan includes a rooftop greenhouse that will produce food for Chicago-area restaurants and groceries.

But this stretch of the Far South Side also has a reputation – the Wild Hundreds, some call it – and that’s why LISC Chicago is working with CNI and other local partners on a comprehensive set of issues, from affordable housing to crime prevention, job readiness to health care. Indeed, while the king and queen were inspecting the almost completed greenhouse, a construction crew was putting final touches on a new ambulatory clinic for Advocate Health Care. It’s located a stone’s throw from the new Walmart that anchors Pullman Park’s shopping center. LISC helped get the clinic going with an $895,430 construction loan.

Green profits

What most impresses about Method soap and Gotham Greens, though, is that these are profit-minded private companies, neither choosing Pullman because of some dreamy social mission.

Method is capturing a worldwide market of consumers who want their soaps to be both environmentally green and personally hypoallergenic. Formulated with naturally derived, biodegradable ingredients, their products can be found in more than 40,000 retail locations throughout North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Their retailers here include Target, Lowe’s Home Improvement and Kroger.

Method's Pullman plant is designed to be the world's first LEED-Platinum certified manufacturing plant in its industry. Not as noticeable from ground level as its enormous wind turbine or slowly turning solar collectors, the building’s rooftop greenhouse – the first operated by Gotham Greens outside its home territory of New York -- spans a mind-boggling 75,000 square feet. When completed it will produce every year one million pounds of fresh, sustainably-grown, pesticide-free produce for the local Chicago market. Deals already have been reached with Whole Foods, Mariano’s and other retailers.  

Jenn Frymark, chief agricultural officer of Gotham Greens, says the rooftop garden is a water-efficient method of growing food. Land-efficient, too, because year-round growing allows her crew to harvest 10 times the number of crops (30 as opposed to 3) as the most efficient in-ground farming.

“This is the most water-efficient method of growing food,” said Jenn Frymark, chief agricultural officer of Gotham Greens. “And the most land-efficient, because by growing year-round we can harvest 10 times the number of crops (30 as opposed to 3) as the most efficient in-ground farming.”

All of which seems very forward-thinking … and somewhat ironic, in that President Barack Obama recently anointed what’s left of George Pullman’s 19th Century self-contained factory Town of Pullman as a National Historic Monument.

It was this embrace of past and future that helped win for CNI the Chicago Community Trust’s Outstanding Community Strategy of the Year Award at last February’s Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards.

In accepting, Doig credited U.S. Bank, LISC Chicago, Ald. Frank Beale (9th) and untold hundreds of residents who attended community planning sessions. Afterwards he got back on his smartphone, because there’s much that still needs doing in Pullman … and there’s always another deal.

More information: Dave Doig; Jake Ament


Posted in Economic Development, Pullman


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