By Susan Fong
Area residents opposing Digital Realty’s proposed data center at 321 W. 21st St. in the South Loop community want to know when this project will become an agenda item for Chicago Department of Planning and Development and the City Council.
The new center would stand on the east side of Prairie Avenue, parallel to Digital Realty’s 350 E. Cermak Rd. site, between Cermak and 21st Street, to be connected to the existing structure by a bridge. The new site also would sit directly across from Chess Lofts Apartments at 320 W. 21st St.
Tina Feldstein, president of Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance (PDNA) and the Chess Lofts Condominiums, said community members want to stop the expansion due to possible damaging environmental effects, such as air pollution and noise, as well as disruption to the community.
Digital Realty’s vice president of portfolio management, Rafal Rak, countered that the noise emanating from the new development “will be negligible to individuals at both street level and in neighboring buildings. This has been confirmed by noise modeling in a worst-case scenario of operation. Our standby generator systems will be located at the upper levels, discharging all exhaust far away from pedestrian traffic. Even so, they will be equipped with supplemental equipment providing top tier EPA emission compliance, 98% NOx [nitrogen oxide] reductions, silencers, and diesel particulate filters.”
“It is common to have construction-related debris spread through an area from the build out or expansion of a data center,” explained Gilbert Michaud, assistant professor, School of Environmental Sustainability, Loyola University Chicago. “However, this is a temporary activity, as most data centers take between 12 and 18 months to build.”
However, Michaud noted, “A dark soot, known as ‘black dust,’ is sometimes found in data centers when operating, usually stemming from overheating and worn out rubber belts. It’s possible that this dust exists the building and flows out onto nearby homes and cars. Data centers typically enact strategies to avoid this, such as infrastructural upgrades and special cleaning solutions.
“Academic research has started to investigate the health impacts of data centers, but much of this remains conceptual in nature, such as broader discussions around the projected increased healthcare costs associated with climate change and resource depletion,” Michaud said. “Empirical, quantitative research that calculates the potential impacts of data centers to asthma, cancer, and other types of health conditions is definitely needed. Toxic electronic waste is another potential issue.”
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 agencies 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.
“There has been no word from Alderwoman Pat Dowell’s office [4th Ward], so we don’t know where she actually stands on this,” said Feldstein. “However, if the alderwoman is behind the data center, then it’s likely to be approved in the City Council. After all this is her ward.”
Dowell said she still is reviewing information and has not completed her research on this issue.
Chess Loft resident Angela K. Ingram has created a petition to stop the expansion. The petition states that “data centers are a growing aspect of our societal infrastructures, [but] this does not come without consequences for the environment and nearby community members.”
With increased demand for global internet services, the number of data centers is increasing, as has their energy use. Computing servers require large amounts of energy both to run and to cool.
Up to now this area has seen little regulation, as “the industry has been more or less self-regulating,” said Feldstein.
Ingram has consulted with environmental community groups that are working with states to develop legislation regulating environmental issues to protect neighbors of data centers.
According to Rak, this facility would offset power consumption by renewable energy, effectively making its carbon footprint zero.
“As a company, we strive to minimize our water usage,” Rak said, noting Digital Realty “utilizes industry leading water efficient technologies throughout our portfolio. This facility will take advantage of partial and 100% economization or ‘free cooling’ during much of the year” to cut down pollution.
The petition stresses the crucial step of weighing data centers’ potential environmental impacts and effects the surrounding community’s wellbeing and then taking proactive and protective measures. For more information about the data center petition, go to https://shorturl.at/giW02.
According to Deputy Commissioner Peter Strazzabosco of the City’s Department of Planning and Development, the City approved the proposed development site in 2014 as Planned Development 675. Although approvals for the site’s “sub-area B” remain in effect, because of the time elapsed since initial approval, the new building version proposed for sub-area B requires further approval.
Rak said, “In sum, the use is the same as was approved previously in 2014 for a data center. There have never been residential uses contemplated for this property. The height, bulk, and impact have been reduced from what was previously approved. The square footage has been reduced from 500,000 square feet to 314,000 square feet of building floor area, the height has been reduced from 310 feet to 271 feet, and the number of stories above grade have been reduced from 13 to 11.”
The Planned Development ordinance calls for ongoing oversight, transparency, and benchmarking against industry standards, local noise emission and air quality regulations, and obligations by Digital Realty to ensure ongoing compliance and mitigation responsibilities.
Feldstein said that “hasn’t been true” for the noise coming from the 350 E. Cermak center, as residents of Printer’s Row have reported excessive loudness.
Additionally, Chess Loft resident Adam Kim previously reported “condos facing the data center reported black dust on their balconies.”