By Rick Romano
Local residents are challenging Digital Realty’s proposal to expand its data center at 350 E. Cermak Rd. near McCormick Place and Wintrust Arena, which supports area companies’ digital computing needs, because of potential environmental harm.
Tina Feldstein, president of Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance (PDNA) and the Chess Lofts Condominiums, 320 W. 21st St., said of the proposed development—a more than 500,000-square-foot space in a new adjacent 13-story structure—“We are in a state of shock that this is being planned.”
Feldstein said Digital Realty, which operates the existing structure and is seeking City approval to expand, and City officials have “minimized the concern over noise and air pollution. This development would require three substations that would be the equivalent of powering 45,000 homes. We are not interested in minimizing the concern.”
She added that the new 13-story structure would block sunlight from reaching neighboring buildings, including the eight-story Chess Lofts. It would have a bridge connecting the new building with the existing one and have cooling towers on the roof.
Other Chess Lofts residents also are attempting to stop the proposed expansion. Angela K. Ingram authored a petition and has garnered almost 800 signatures. Ingram said she is disappointed the proposal is not on the City Council agenda and was taken off the Planning Board agenda after having been on it previously.
A national issue
As a result of the proposed expansion, Ingram and her colleagues “have been involved with data center communities across the country, particularly in Virginia where activists have reached out to us about health issues these data centers cause. Data centers are the factories of the 21st century, and we need to have them regulated in highly populated areas.”
Ingram’s husband, Adam Kim, said the proposed expansion would affect their southwest-facing condo directly. He noted condo units facing the existing data center have reported black dust on their balconies.
“We have also heard alarms going off at the data center day and night,” he said. “They are turned off in 30 minutes or hours later.”
PDNA recently partnered in protest with Girl Scout Troop 26260, whose members created a “Protect Our Home” banner mural and hung it on Chess Lofts’s west side.
Other neighborhood associations offered mixed reactions.
South Loop Concerned Coalition said in a statement, “We support PDNA,” noted the group is sharing that decision with its members, and added, “It seems there should be more community awareness and engagement.”
Dennis McClendon of the South Loop Neighbors, however, said his organization has no plans to protest the expansion and he is not aware of any environmental concerns.
Bonnie Sanchez Carlson of the Near South Planning Board said her organization has reviewed the plans and its members “have come to the conclusion that we would not object.”
Third Ward Alderwoman Pat Dowell, who held a community meeting on the development in September, did not say when a proposal would come before the City Council for an approval or whether she would support it. Dowell said, “I am still studying the proposal. Input and comments from residents are welcomed.”
Digital Realty in a statement told Gazette Chicago, “At Digital Realty, we are committed to working closely with the communities where we operate to minimize environmental impact and ensure our data centers meet local building standards. We are currently in the process of seeking approval to expand our data center at 350 E. Cermak and have been working with the City of Chicago Planning Department, Department of Public Health, Alderman Pat Dowell, and residents to ensure our plans meet City requirements.
“Specifically, we have ensured that our designs, which include a closed-loop water cooling system, are well within the noise regulations for the area and meet green building certification standards. Digital is targeting Silver LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification and has plans to source local renewable energy through power purchase agreements to fully offset the power used by the facility, making the data center a net-zero facility. Over the coming months we will continue speaking with the local community and the Chicago City Council, to ensure any concerns are addressed.”
Local academic environmental experts are concerned about environmental risk.
Gilbaud Michaud, assistant professor in the School of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University Chicago, said, “This is a classic case of economic development vs. environmental impact. Depending on the size of the center, thousands of servers and other equipment are running, and it is energy intensive.”
Michaud said dust and noise are common issues created from overheated equipment.
Serap Erdal, associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health, said the diesel-powered generators necessary to run data center equipment create air pollution that can endanger the population, ranging from minor respiratory irritation to cardiovascular disease. She said among the optimal ways to ensure data centers operate as safely as possible is to have data companies work with regulatory commissions to prepare and review health impact statements for diesel exhaust and carbon dioxide pollutants. She points to data center information provided by the Department of Ecology in the State of Washington as particularly relevant.
Experts call for data centers to adopt cooling technologies and renewable energy sources to lessen their adverse environmental effects.
Data centers feature servers, storage devices, and networking equipment and usually manage large amounts of data required for businesses to operate. Businesses or third party providers can be owners.
Chicago’s strategic location is a draw for data center developers and users. In addition, the State of Illinois has enacted more than $4.2 million in tax incentives for new development.
For Digital Realty, log on to www.digitalrealty.com/ or call (877) 378-3282. To contact Alderwoman Dowell, email [email protected] or call (773) 373-9273. To contact Erdal, email [email protected] or call (312) 996-5875. To contact Michaud, email [email protected] or call (773) 508-7986. The Near South Planning Board’s website is https://thenspb.org/, or call (312) 987-1980. For PDNA, log on to www.facebook.com/PDNAChicago/. The South Loop Concerned Coalition website is https://southloopconcernedcoalition.org/home. The South Loop Neighbors website is www.southloopneighbors.org/.
For more information about the data center petition, go to https://shorturl.at/giW02.
For information about the State of Washington environmental practices, go to www.ecology.wa.gov.