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Can America's Largest Green Business Development Spark a Movement?

An attempt to build the country's largest sustainable shopping center morphed into an experiment in green business development.

In 2006, a green-minded developer proposed converting a hulking former underwear and lamp factory—a landmark for those who have driven the freeway between O’Hare International Airport and downtown Chicago—into one of the country’s first eco-focused shopping centers.

The Green Exchange project has since evolved, stalled, and been revived to house varying types of tenants, all dedicated to sustainability. The building’s green overhaul has been praised, but the project’s true impact may be creating a model for promoting sustainability and green networking among its tenant businesses and their customers.

Millions of dollars in private and public funding redeveloped the building to reflect green standards. Among the building's features are a 41,000-gallon rain cistern, an energy-efficient escalator, and various recycled materials used throughout the building. The developers say they are awaiting LEED platinum certification. It’s not the first building of its kind in the country redeveloped to cater to this specific community—there’s a forerunner in Portland—but at 272,000 square feet, it is the largest of its kind in the country.

The Green Exchange was set to open in 2007, but the economy caused financial arrangements and prospective tenants to fall by the wayside. Last year, the Green Exchange attracted a few key tenants who say that while rents are higher than at comparable spaces without sustainable standards, they willingly pay because they are surrounded by other businesses that share their philosophy.

“There's an added strength in numbers that occurs because we support each other's causes and beliefs,” says Steve Sherman, chief operating officer of GreenChoice Bank, a building tenant. “It allows us to promote one another and publicize one another that we otherwise couldn’t if we weren’t around each other.”

The one litmus test to becoming a tenant of the building is displaying some commitment to sustainability. "We are not the green police, but every tenant in the building falls on the spectrum of sustainability," leasing agent Aaron Gadiel says. "Any tenant that we go after or any tenant that comes to us needs to be on the spectrum. We see it as a philosophy that is more than about recycling paper."

Every lease includes stipulations that address everything from the amount of light bulb wattage per square foot to the type of carpets and adhesives used on the floor. “We turn away business all the time, which you have to understand is tough in any economy," Gadiel says. "It doesn't make sense to bring in someone who doesn't understand what we are doing here."

The result has been a group of tenants that not only represent the spectrum of sustainability, but a wide spectrum of sectors of the economy, including banking, marketing, architecture, and packaging. Many of the tenants cater to businesses, but a day care extolling sustainable ideals and lab and brewery space for a molecular gastronomist are set to move in soon.

Everyone seems to be a client of everyone else in the building. The architecture firm designed the bank and the building’s event space. The bank often funds projects designed by the architecture firm. Interactions go beyond just doing business, as tenants regularly hold meetings with one another (often in the resident event space) to discuss individual needs or ways to attract customers and clients. If there’s not someone in the building who can fill the need, surely someone has an answer as to where else to find it. Tenants say the proximity keeps them from settling on less sustainable business practices. Essentially, a referral system comes with the lease.

“We saw there were people starting green businesses, but everyone was operating on their own,” building developer David Baum told Crain’s Chicago Business. “We thought if we could aggregate these folks and they could share resources, they could be more successful in a collective environment.”

Leaders of Chicago's city’s sustainability community say the physical footprint is important to its green movement, but they're uncertain as to how much significance it will have going forward. Chicago’s green business movement is small in comparison to other large cities and would benefit from having a place to call home, says Peter Nicholson, executive director of the Foresight Design Initiative, a consulting firm focused on sustainable development. Nicholson says the Green Exchange represents a logical progression beyond the networking events that have been the core venue for this community to interact, but has yet to prove that it can be a catalyst to bring those outside the movement to the green mindset. "Physical proximity can make a difference, but its all a matter of what you do with it," he says.

Many developments are constructed according to LEED specifications, and many office parks and coworking environments are created to bring together like-minded businesses. There aren’t yet many projects that do both, so the Green Exchange may become a model for developments across the country.

Photo by Tanveer Ali

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