COVID-19 Delivering Latest Twist in Fight Over Controversial Shipping Hub

Project recently approved by Joliet raising issues not only of economics but also of open democracy for governments making decisions as they adhere to social distancing and stay-at-home orders amid pandemic.

Even with much of the nation staying at home during the coronavirus, trucks run nearly nonstop on Laraway Road just north of Elwood five miles west of a proposed warehouse park that is expected to generate even more truck traffic. (Jane Ford for BGA)

Stephanie Irvine’s war with an e-commerce shipping warehouse park proposed near Joliet began three years ago, just months after she bought her family farm down the road near Elwood.

The sprawling complex — which would cover roughly seven times the area of Chicago’s Grant Park — would be another testament to the $600 billion online U.S. retail industry. Warehouses like it are springing up all over the nation to meet the demand for faster deliveries to doorsteps far and wide.

Irvine likes next-day delivery as much as anyone but said the pollution and thousands of trucks that the mega hub will bring to her small town’s already clogged roads cannot compensate for the few good-paying jobs that come with it.

So far, she’s been successful. But in the past month a new and tough adversary has emerged: the coronavirus.

With much of the nation sheltering in place and ramping up the need for home deliveries, supporters of the warehouse project have used the pandemic as a reason for government officials to quickly approve the development.

And opponents such as Irvine have felt hamstrung to fight back because COVID-19 is forcing government meetings to be held virtually, preventing citizens from storming City Hall.

The situation is an early case study of the controversies that can arise for governments as they make decisions during the pandemic when social spacing and stay-at-home orders prevent residents from gaining access to meetings of town councils and other public bodies.

Last week, opponents of the warehouse park suffered a setback when the city council in Joliet gave preliminary approval to annex the land for the warehouse park that would butt up against the five-acre farm Irvine shares with her husband, Jason.

“They’re using coronavirus to slap this through with the least possible resistance,” said Irvine, 36, who also teaches English at a local community college. “They don’t even have to look anybody in the eye to do it.”

The project, which is being advanced by Kansas City area-based NorthPoint Development, promises to bring $1 billion in investments, 1,600 construction jobs and 4,500 permanent warehouse jobs.

The development is the latest effort in the Chicago region to attract online retailers like Amazon by building giant clusters of often-controversial warehouses and other industrial infrastructure. On any given day, half of all containers moving in the U.S. pass in or around Chicago by train, plane or truck, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

On its website, NorthPoint cites the coronavirus as an e-commerce turbocharger. “The retail world was already transforming and will evolve even faster in a post-pandemic world,’’ the company says.

For Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk, a finalized NorthPoint annexation agreement will provide an immediate $5 million cash infusion for the city and a potential source of long-term growth.

O’Dekirk said the city has lost three-quarters of its revenue since the pandemic shut down casinos and other businesses in town. With the coronavirus threatening public meetings for the rest of the year, O’Dekirk said the city moved forward with its unorthodox hearing on NorthPoint but stretched those hearings to 12 ½ hours over four days to accommodate varying points of view.

“The people who are criticizing us just don’t want to go forward, and they’re using COVID-19 to say, ‘shame on you,’ ’’ he said.

In 2017, Stephanie Irvine helped found a grassroots organization opposed to a warehouse park development near Joliet. The “Just Say No to NorthPoint” group now has nearly 4,000 followers on its Facebook page. (Jane Ford for BGA)

In 2018, Irvine was one of the leaders when Elwood balked at annexing the land for NorthPoint. A turning point came when she asked people in a packed gymnasium to stand if they opposed it.

“Everybody stood up, and they were yelling and waving signs and clapping for me. It was democracy in action,” she said.

Last week, when Irvine phoned in for her four-minute allotment of remote commentary during the Joliet public hearing, the vibe was far different. “It felt like you were talking into a black hole,” she said.

Those without internet access couldn’t register to speak at the meeting; that’s about one in 10 Joliet residents, warehouse critics say.

Others may not have known about the hearing because of late notice, and could only view public comments emailed to the council by filing a Freedom of Information request. Callers had to register as many as four days in advance and wait for a call-back — sometimes during work hours. If they failed to respond within four rings, they got bumped to the end of the line.

Irvine tried and failed to convince a Will County court to block the vote, arguing the restrictions violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. Judge John Anderson disagreed, ruling that under challenging circumstances the city’s effort to stage a public hearing was at least reasonable. But he still had misgivings.

“Having this meeting in the way the City has decided is shady and does a disservice to the public,” Anderson said in his ruling.

Irvine promises more litigation after last week’s vote. On Tuesday, she and other opponents said they may ask Anderson to declare the vote null and void but that the judge hasn’t scheduled the case for a public hearing until July.

Irvine’s father-in-law, Dick Ooykaas, 63, also opposes the development. He started buying 540 acres for his own nearby tree farm 40 years ago and now has 45 employees. He said he sometimes waits five minutes to pull across a country road as trucks from existing warehouses roar by at 70 miles per hour. That’s tough, he noted, when pulling a trailer full of freshly dug trees. The only reason NorthPoint wants farmland near his rural home, he said, is that it costs half as much as it would five miles away near the existing warehouse parks.

Ooykaas said the company is also bragging about the 8,000 trees it intends to plant on farmland it wants to cover with warehouses. “They think they can do whatever they want,’’ he said, “just because they’ve got money.’’

Stephanie Irvine found out that NorthPoint Development wanted to build a warehouse park behind her five-acre tree farm near Elwood just four months after purchasing the property in 2017. (Jane Ford for BGA)

The warehouse debate is driven largely by geography and by the remarkable growth of e-commerce and the logistics infrastructure it needs.

Elwood has become a Midwest shipping hub because it is at the eastern end of a high-speed rail line connecting Chicago to Los Angeles, and in turn, to shipping containers coming to and from China.

Amazon alone has five major distribution centers near Joliet, and the company uses them to break open containers and distribute their contents via truck and rail not just to Chicago, but to 88 million people throughout the upper Midwest.

Wal-Mart, Ikea, Target, Samsung, and Dollar Tree operate additional warehouses nearby and are scrambling to keep up.

Jose Holguin-Veras, an engineering professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said the intermodal network that’s developed “is a juggernaut that is very, very difficult to stop.” Prior to the pandemic, he foresaw average daily package deliveries to Chicago-area homes and businesses rising to 3.3 million by 2021, up 26 percent from 2018.

These sorts of projects are prompting similar debates around the country.

In a 2014 study of a Chicago suburb, the Environmental Protection Agency found “residential areas in close proximity to the Cicero rail yard generally experience higher overall air pollution.’’ The smog, soot and dust from diesel fumes lead to elevated levels of disease and death, and now to increased vulnerability to COVID-19, a Harvard University study found.

Last year, the American Lung Association gave a failing air quality grade to San Bernardino, California, where Amazon is the largest employer with 14 distribution centers.

In Joliet, the four days of hearings provided plenty of emotion.

Burneva McCullum of the South Suburban Region Black Chamber of Commerce called to say opponents should stop dismissing the $16.08 hourly pay NorthPoint expects for warehouse workers.

“It’s not up to others to dictate what those without jobs should want,’’ she said.

Raechel Steffes dialed in to say she’d move if Joliet approved NorthPoint. “I refuse to raise my child and future children in an area full of nothing but pollution, noise, traffic, and with representatives that do not uphold the democratic process,” she said.

In all, about 250 people spoke, with NorthPoint opponents outnumbering supporters by five to one. Traffic was their top concern.

They told stories of semi-trucks snarling traffic, flipping over, roaring through red lights, crashing into police cruisers, running people off the road, speeding through residential neighborhoods, and crushing headstones as they turn around inside a cemetery for U.S. war veterans. They warned of crumbling bridges and pot-holed highways Illinois may never repair now that COVID-19 has saddled the state with a $2.7 billion budget deficit.

When NorthPoint’s turn came at the meeting, its executives listed the companies that are already tenants — Amazon, GM, Ford, Wayfair and Home Depot — and came close to daring the city to make its way into the future without them.

“We’ve been waiting and working for nearly four years. We can’t wait any longer,” said Nathaniel Hagedorn, NorthPoint’s chief executive.

With projects in 23 states, the privately owned NorthPoint also has perfected the art of political lobbying.

During the Joliet hearings, the company’s primary backing came from unionized construction workers who earn four times more than people would make in the warehouses. NorthPoint and the construction unions are players in Joliet-area political campaigns. Together, they donated to all nine of the Joliet City Council members during recent elections, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.

The company’s website features a picture of Hagedorn with former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the dedication of a new Chicago warehouse. For the Joliet vote, NorthPoint lined up bipartisan endorsements. The Democrats included U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Bobby Rush, who represents Elwood. U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican, also endorsed the annexation.

Now that Joliet has said yes to NorthPoint, it still must wait years to see how its decision pays off.

Mayor Bob O'Dekirk, second from left, presides over a public hearing earlier this month on the NorthPoint Development warehouse plan. Because of social distancing due to the coronavirus, the public could not attend the meeting in person and had to call in to voice their opinion on the controversial project.

For one thing, NorthPoint still faces a gauntlet of lawsuits, and not just about open meetings. The company needs a bridge over a local highway to fulfill its promise of limiting the number of trucks on neighborhood streets. But the bridge would be built in Elwood, which is fighting the plan in court. NorthPoint isn’t requesting tax breaks for now, but it’s applying for a state enterprise zone through which it could seek them later on.

And uncertainty remains even as Amazon scrambles to hire 75,000 workers for its U.S. operations, on top of 100,000 added as demand surged in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, and as the Union Pacific Railroad consolidates some of its Chicago-area operations in Elwood.

By last month, COVID-19 had already cut the number of high-speed container trains moving from Los Angeles to Elwood in half, to 25 trains per week, according to the Financial Times. About a third of the land stands vacant inside a sprawling intermodal yard that Centerpoint Properties built in Elwood 20 years ago.

O’Dekirk can’t say with certainty when COVID-19 will relax its grip enough for the NorthPoint warehouses to flourish. “All I know is, I’ve got a potential billion-dollar investment saying this is a good idea,” he said.

But Holguin-Veras said making a decision “during a pandemic is bound to upset local communities.”

“When cities make decisions under duress, they’re less inclined to require things like buffer areas for noise and traffic, or the use of electric vehicles,” Holguin-Veras said.

By moving ahead during the pandemic, O’Dekirk did more than squander leverage to press NorthPoint to mitigate problems that might develop from the project, Irvine argued. He also revealed the fundamental unfairness in the city’s approach, she said.

“There was nothing essential about this other than that NorthPoint wanted it done now,” she said.

Opponents of the NorthPoint development hired Chicago attorney Matt Topic for its Open Meetings Act lawsuit. Topic is the outside general counsel for the BGA, and frequently represents other clients on open-government matters. The BGA is not involved in any aspect of the NorthPoint lawsuit and Topic was not involved in the reporting or editing of this story.