This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Entrepreneurs can hit Chicago streets for green biz opportunities

A recently-completed green street pilot project could translate into future deals for eco-entrepreneurs offering products and services for sustainable roadways.

Chicago’s Department of Transportation (CDOT) last week unveiled the first phase of a green street project on a two-mile patch of Cermak Road and Blue Island Avenue in Pilsen. The 1.5-mile stretch already completed incorporates an array of sustainable designs that could help cities solve some environmental challenges already here and others anticipated in the future, says Gabe Klein, CDOT Commissioner. The $14 million project includes a long list of green features, including: roadway materials using recycled content; stormwater management strategies; reduced energy use that incorporates LED pedestrian light poles and wind and solar-powered lights, and new bike lanes. Creating eco-friendly community space is part of the design too.

While the team that oversaw the project intends to measure the effectiveness of these efforts over the next few years, they’re already moving forward with incorporating some features in other city projects, says Janet Attarian, Project Director for the Streetscapes and Sustainable Design Program. That’s because they already know many elements used in the green design are producing results and lowering the city’s costs, she says.

The commissioner says more street projects like the one in Pilsen are expected, and that’s good news for green entrepreneurs and small-business owners focusing on cutting-edge eco-minded products. They could get in on future RFPs the Department of Transportation posts, especially since Mr. Klein emphasizes the department is creating sub-contracted projects so that smaller, local players can participate.

Since disbanding Chicago’s Department of Environment, city officials have emphasized their intent to embed sustainable measures throughout local government projects. Getting Mr. Klein to comply was easy. He’s a longtime advocate of making city streets more hospitable to pedestrians and many modes of transportation. Before joining the Emanuel administration, he headed the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., where he piloted car-protected bike lanes and started one of the first bike-share programs in the country.

Crain’s met with Mr. Klein and Ms. Attarian to learn more about the latest project and what’s coming down the pike so green startups can think about how they can cash in.

Can you describe a few of the greenest features of this project and how they might be replicated elsewhere in the city?

Mr. Klein: On the materials front, we included new materials that used 23% recycled content. We’re going to try to incorporate that into lots of our projects. We have an RFP now for alternative paving methods using recycled content. It’s about being environmentally friendly and cutting your costs too.

The storm water best management practices here will divert up to 80% of the typical annual rainfall from the combined sewer system. It was zero before that. We did that by including bioswales, green gardens, permeable pavements and other storm water features into the overall design.

How aggressive are the sustainability goals here and what are some of the most important results you’re looking for?

Mr. Klein: We’re pushing the envelope with this project. I don’t know anyone who’s used photocatalytic cement in city roadways before. We’re setting a new standard for what cities are willing to try. Most cities aren’t doing much more than stormwater management in their street projects.

It’s really easy to design a cement plaza, but harder to put together something that’s permeable, better looking and not necessarily more expensive.

We’re in a situation where we need to make changes more quickly. We’re seeing the environment deteriorating more quickly and we need to save money. This project came in 21% less expensive than the projects that others quoted.

Why is data collection and measurement so important to the success of this project?

Ms. Attarian: We’ve partnered with the Chicago Water Reclamation District to collect information so we know if we really are diverting 80% of the average rainfall from the combined sewers. The CWRD has been collecting pre-construction data for two years to get a baseline for comparison. Now we’re committed to gathering two years of post-construction data focused on stormwater.

It’s also really important that we understand the maintenance of everything we’re installing. They might perform well the day we start, but we need to know how to take care of things over time. With the permeable pavers, for example, we have to figure out the maintenance protocol. We aren’t arrogant enough to say we know all about how to maintain it.

Are there plans to roll out some of these greening measures to other streets in Chicago?

Ms. Attarian: We’ve been learning as we go and we haven’t waited to implement some of these ideas. Green alleys are being implemented in other projects. We’re using better lighting technology across the city, and we’re putting permeable pavers all over Chicago.

We’re in the process of writing our sustainability guidelines and this will tell us how to bake these features into everything we do.

Crain’s: Are there specific areas within green street designs that startups should think about pursuing so they can bid on city contracts?

Mr. Klein: I love that there are LED street lights powered by wind and solar energy. That technology is changing so fast. Private companies are advancing this and people like us are challenging the private sector for better products. Eventually we’d like to get off the grid with more of our street lights. I think in 10 years we can probably be there and these pilots are the precursors.

How can entrepreneurs learn about upcoming CDOT projects?

Mr. Klein: They should keep themselves informed of what’s going on from the city’s website. We’re also out in the community talking about upcoming projects and the complete streets guidelines are coming out soon too. People who follow us are clear about what direction we’re heading, whether it’s design, professional services, construction or engineering. We have lots of projects coming up.

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