Old building wanted for new green project

Two University students said they are working to take old, unused buildings in Champaign-Urbana and transforming them into sustainable urban farms.

Tomasz Dziergas, co-founder of the initiative and junior in FAA, said he learned about The Plant, in Chicago, a nonprofit organization promoting sustainable food production by reusing a retired meat-packing facility, during his sophomore year. He said he realized this model is applicable to Champaign-Urbana after he noticed other abandoned buildings around town.

“This model would bring a lot of good to the community,” Dziergas said.

Maximillian Mahalek, co-founder and sophomore in FAA, said the system in place in Chicago relies on a loop system in which waste produced by tilapia fish is run through a biofilter. That waste is then broken down into nitrates, which are absorbed to grow plants and simultaneously clean the tilapias’ water. The Plant then sells both the fish and the vegetables it produces to the community for a profit, he said.

He said they were originally looking into an old building in north Champaign to use for the initiative. However, the site at 811 N. State St., a former ice house, which manufactured large blocks of ice before mechanical refrigeration, will soon be demolished.

Eleanor Blackmon, assistant city engineer, said the roof and parts of the building are collapsing and the concrete floors have also become very degraded.

In August, a report went to the city council for the demolition of the west end of this building, and the entire building will be demolished within the year, when there is adequate funds and staff members, she said.

She said the demolition of the property will instead help create a stormwater detention where stormwater will fill in the ditch instead of in residents’ basements or streets. Mahalek said the ice house is set for demolition because it is an insecure facility.

“They want to eventually tear down the entire building to expand the flood zone for Boneyard Creek,” he said.

He added that there are several abandoned buildings in every community within central Illinois.

“They don’t have a purpose right now,” Mahalek said. “They’re large, underused, industrial structures that are multilevel and have large open spaces.”

Champaign mayor Don Gerard said he is interested in looking for other available properties to carry out the students’ idea.

“I really admire their vision,” he said. “We still want to do (this).”

But the planning department in Champaign disagrees about the availability of properties in the city.

“The planning department does not agree with the mayor as of now,” Mahalek said. “There seems to be a disagreement between the two parties.”

Despite the disagreement, Dziergas said the sustainable idea would bring the community together by using a volunteer student workforce and the University’s knowledge.

“It would be for the sake of the community, not for someone’s pocket,” he said.