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Students at Illinois devise plan to redevelop abandoned coke oven plant

Mark Reutter, Business & Law Editor

Acme Coke Oven Plant
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Photo by Mark Reutter
Twenty landscape architecture students spent spring break at the former Acme Coke Oven Plant in southeast Chicago learning about its past and proposing options for its future.


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The task was to create a range of alternatives for redeveloping a derelict vestige of Chicago’s once booming steel industry. The time frame: four days.

That’s how 20 landscape architecture students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign spent their spring break. They trooped around the former Acme Coke Oven Plant in southeast Chicago, making sketches and maps, and heard about the plant’s role in processing coal into coke, which then fueled the blast furnaces that once lined the Calumet River.

Returning to the Urbana campus, the students brainstormed ways to recycle the site into a museum, park or possible zone for light industry.

They came back on Friday, March 25, to present six designs to about 50 people at East Side United Methodist Church in Chicago. Among the more exotic proposals were a “people mover” to transport visitors along the conveyor belts, and a deck on the coke-quenching tower to provide a striking view of the Chicago skyline.

“It’s very exciting to have these professionals coming in to help,” said Marian Byrnes, the president of the Calumet Heritage Partnership. “It gives you confidence that we are going to end up with something very valuable here.”

The coke plant, closed in 2001, is the last physical relic of an industry that employed 40,000 workers in southeast Chicago during the 1950s.

All of the mills – South Works, Wisconsin Steel, Republic Steel and Acme Steel – are gone, although steel is still produced in northwest Indiana. A group of steelworkers, community activists, business organizations and industrial archeologists came together to retain the Acme property, which was threatened with demolition by a local scrap dealer.

The challenge presented to the U. of I. students was how to redesign the 135-acre site to make it environmentally friendly. Four members of the landscape architecture faculty – Gary Kesler, David Kovacic, Jerry Soesbe and James Wescoat – assisted the students.

The students first learned of the various limitations to their efforts, most important, the city of Chicago’s desire to use part of the Acme parcel for an auto impoundment lot.

“I see the project as a way to convert an eyesore into a wonderful complex that tells an interesting story,” said Emily Hamilton, a graduate student. Her design team, which included Tian Wan and Yung-Ching Lin, proposed a courtyard for community meetings in a central plaza.

Like the other teams, the students wanted the space for the car pound to be as limited as possible and proposed extending the neighboring Big Marsh wetlands into the site to bring a smooth transition between the natural and man-made environment.

Byrnes and other community members praised the imagination of the plans. Several audience members, however, urged more references to the human drama of steelmaking and to the community’s struggle to regain its economic footing after the shutdown of so many plants.

“There is a deep scar in those who have stayed here. The city, the government, abandoned this area and it will take time for this community to heal,” Jason Zajac, a local resident, told the students.

In keeping with a labor theme, a design team led by David Dodson, Alex George and Meghan White called for a timeline of key dates and events inscribed along a walkway linking the north and south ends of the site.

Job creation was also on the mind of the design teams, with proposals for a restaurant, light industry and a gift shop at the site.

Kurt Culbertson, a principal at Design Workshop, Inc., who assisted the students, pointed out that creative reuse of industrial structures is on the rise in the U.S and abroad. An abandoned steel mill at Duisberg-Nord, Germany, was successfully converted into playgrounds and walkways, and a rubber factory in Denver has been recycled.

Byrnes said the students’ drawings will be closely examined by the heritage partnership. The nonprofit group still needs to win approval from the city before planning can begin. The city has agreed to fund a study of the extent of pollution at the site.

“The potential is there for something great,” said U. of I. student Matt Wontroba.