CPS building repurposing committee faces large task

September 27, 2013

The letters on Crispus Attucks Elementary School’s sign have fallen off the brick, making it look like a scramble-board puzzle. The shuttered building is careworn. Most of the windows are boarded up. There’s graffiti.

Attucks, at 38th and Dearborn, closed in 2008. It’s in the middle of open tracts of grassy land. This corridor was once home to thousands of public housing families. They are gone and so are many of the schools that used to be around here.

Chicago Public Schools says it’s working with the city to bring a potential development to the Attucks site. But so far, city officials are mum.

Attucks is one of eight shuttered CPS schools still on the books from years past. That’s not counting the additional 43 empty buildings from the latest round of school closures last spring.  That’s such a large and varied collection that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has appointed a committee to help determine what to do with those structures.

But if the city’s past success with selling unused school buildings is any sign, .the mayor’s committee has a big job on its hands.

“There’s a lot of great opportunities and great ideas, but having those individuals that will step forward to say, okay, I’m going to be the catalyst and really run this operation will be the key to the success of whatever happens in all the communities. No, the city can’t afford 50 community centers. It’s just not realistic,” said Wilbur Milhouse, chair of Emanuel’s school repurposing committee.

Milhouse has an engineering and construction company and deep civic connections.  There are pictures of himself with the mayor and with President Barack Obama on the walls of his downtown office. Recently, he and his wife opened a restaurant on west Grand Avenue. Other committee members are from the MacArthur Foundation, city hall and community development groups.

Milhouse said by the end of this year, the school committee will have a blueprint for how people can submit ideas for transforming the empty buildings, or the land they’re on.

“We’re not looking at specific schools and specific recommendations for those schools. We’re looking to put together an overall principle or set of rules or outline that anyone that has an idea for Overton school or the school over here can participate in the process.”

If that sounds too much like baby steps, consider again the sheer number of new closures: 42.

“That’s why it’s somewhat difficult in looking at the range of schools that we have and the range of neighborhoods,” he said.

Many of the schools are built solidly. But others could need demolition. The empty schools tend to be in areas already struggling with blight and not a lot of economic activity.

“Market really determines all things. Maybe we can think about having a free market sort of open session for a time to see what the interest is of the free world. Do we have a lot of different development groups, not just big business developers but also individuals who want to create an arts incubator or recreation center?” Milhouse said.

He said other cities with closed school buildings have converted the space into shared artistic space, for instance.  

Historic closures

Chicago’s latest wave of school closings is the largest in recent U.S. history, and has ignited strong opposition. But some Chicago residents see, well, the possibility of lemons turned into lemonade.

Asiaha Butler recently attended an Englewood community meeting with Congressman Bobby Rush and U.S. Senator Mark Kirk. She pitched several ideas to roaring applause.

“We have closed schools. That can employ people to the maintenance. They can make sure it’s not vandalized. We can take back our own schools and they can be repurposed for something else. Why can’t we win a community center, an incubator?” Butler asked.

CPS doesn’t want to be a landlord. And it hasn’t done the best job so far of converting or selling 20-plus parcels of unused buildings and vacant land. A closed Roseland school is being leased by a nonprofit for community use. So far the building appears to be housing only cobwebs.

And that should give more pause to the committee.

Jam-packed former school

The former Price Elementary on south Drexel is jamming on a Thursday evening. Glorious Light Church hosts $5 Zumba classes.  Pastor Michael Neal says the church pays $1,200 a month in rent.

“It’s definitely serving our needs because our mission has all been to be connected to and work through the school and be in the community. We’re not as pressed to have this big church. We’re perfectly fine here and especially know it’s something we can invite the whole community into,” Neal said.

Glorious Light came to the school when it was still open in 2011. Price closed shortly after that and the church started using the school more days a week earlier this year. There are Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and financial literacy classes.

Neal’s office smells inviting as potpourri lingers in the hallways.  The building has a curious mix. A church, K-9 training and a youth center all share classroom space.

“It is quite awkward because they have over 200 kids come in. So when it comes to the maintenance then those are the issues you really have to deal with. 200 people using the bathroom is a real concern. It’s no longer picking up paper. You literally have to go in and scrub and clean,” Neal said.

Picking up trash is one thing but Neal says the wear and tear on these buildings means long-term maintenance is critical.  

As CPS figures out what to do with its new round of closed schools, he says the district needs to invest in full-time building engineers to keep them up.

For now, at least the children and dogs are not on the same floor.

Natalie Moore is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @natalieymoore.