Chicago Plan Commission approves renovation of former warehouse into solar-powered apartments

The Chicago Plan Commission approved a plan Thursday to redevelop a vacant warehouse building in the Armor Square neighborhood on the South Side into dozens of solar-powered apartments. Developer AJ Patton said the project will show how renewable energy can help transform aging structures, lower residents’ utility bills and combat climate change.

Known as Solar Lofts, when completed, the renovated building at 2556 S. Federal St. will have 47 apartments and include electric vehicle charging stations, rooftop solar panels, energy-efficient appliances and other sustainability features found more typically in high-end new construction. , but it’s frequently left out of adaptive reuse projects, according to Patton, CEO of 548 Capital, which bought the building in February for $3.8 million.

“People look at adaptive reuse projects and feel handcuffed when it comes to sustainability, so we may be missing opportunities,” he said. “But with Solar Lofts we will go far beyond what is required by the city’s building code and set the standard for adaptive reuse projects.”

Karen Weigert, director of Loyola University’s Baumhart Center for Social Enterprise & Responsibility and a former chief sustainability officer for Chicago, said the city needs more such projects.

“There are opportunities to make new and existing buildings zero and healthy throughout the city,” he said. “If you think of all the buildings that Chicago will have by the year 2050, most of them are already built. So yes, we need adaptive reuse to help create the decarbonized, decentralized, democratized energy system of the future.”

All commission members present supported the plan, which still needs full City Council approval. Commissioners and the local councilman praised the developer for tackling the renovation and ensuring the preservation of the 90-year-old building.

“This will take an old, dilapidated building and make it useful, in an area of ​​the city that needs this kind of investment,” 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell told commissioners.

The site at 2556 S. Federal St. began life as a printing plant for the Rapid Roller Co., and in the 1960s it was used by the Nation of Islam to publish its Muhammad Speaks newspaper. In addition to the new apartments, Patton plans to add a deck, as well as a rooftop terrace and amenities like a dog-friendly backyard, all designed by Gregory Williams, president of the Gregory Ramon Design Studio.

“There is no greener, more sustainable development than reusing existing assets,” said Commissioner and Department of Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox. “It has been a pleasure to see this project evolve.”

Solar Lofts will include 32 affordable units, 28 financed with about $5.2 million from developer Sterling Bay, Patton added. The money helped satisfy Sterling Bay’s requirement under the Chicago Affordable Requirements Ordinance to provide affordable housing in exchange for getting approval to build the 30-story, 282-unit apartment tower it is now developing at 160 N. Morgan St. at Fulton Market.

Developers frequently meet the ARO requirement by paying fees to the city’s affordable housing fund. But the 2021 overhaul of Chicago’s ARO, which had been criticized by housing advocates for not producing enough units, made the program more flexible, allowing developers to pump funds directly into ready-to-go developments like Solar Lofts, said the commissioner and commissioner. of the Marisa Novara Housing Department.

“This project is under the new ARO, and this is what you can do,” he said. “It is an affordable development at 68% without public subsidy.”

Solar Lofts will give residents the opportunity to live in an efficient, all-electric building powered by solar panels that lower energy costs, according to Patton, who is completing renovations on a 28-unit mixed-income building at 1372 W. 79th St. in Auburn Gresham, which it also plans to equip with solar panels.

He founded 548 Capital in 2016, naming it for the unit number of the Section 8 apartment in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he grew up watching his mother struggle with out-of-control utility bills.

“Providing high-quality units with low utility bills is something I am passionate about,” he said.

Patton said he began work on the Solar Lofts last year after driving through the structure, just south of the South Loop and Chinatown, and between the Dan Ryan Expressway, the Stevenson Expressway, the Metra train line, the Opera Lofts, a condominium development as well as other industrial structures.

“It was in this little corner, off the beaten path, but still in a dense part of town,” he said. “It was clean, in spectacular condition, but it had been empty for years and I thought this should be something bigger.”

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