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Vacant School Buildings Litter Chicago Neighborhoods After Mass School Closings

Chicago has closed or shaken up 200 schools since 2002. That has left 34 vacant buildings on the South and West sides, a WBEZ analysis shows.

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The former Emmett School in Austin, which closed in 2013, has been sold but still sits vacant.

The former Emmett School in Austin, which closed in 2013, has been sold but still sits vacant.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Chicago’s strategy of closing and opening public schools to improve education over the last two decades has left a visible mark on many neighborhoods: vacant buildings.

These are jumbo-sized versions of the boarded-up structures that already pepper neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides.

A WBEZ analysis finds that 38 school buildings remain deserted in the wake of the school system’s decision to close or reconstitute 200 school over the last 17 years.

All told, 170 buildings were affected by these 200 schools shakeups, WBEZ found. Most are being used as schools or office space. But about five years ago, Chicago Public Schools put 47 up for sale.

This is the story of what has happened to those public assets.

Most still sit empty

In a word, the school district has had a hard time selling its old real estate.

Of the 47 schools put on the market, 34 still sit empty — even though many of them have actually sold. And four schools became vacant recently. It’s not clear if the district plans to sell them.

Most of these buildings date back to the mass closings of 50 schools in 2013. Afterward, CPS vowed to move quickly to repurpose or sell them. A task force was created, recommendations released, and some aldermen said they wanted lots of community input.

The former Overton School in Bronzeville, which closed in 2013, has been sold but it remains undeveloped, save for an art exhibit or an occasional community activity. (Manuel Martinez/WBEZ)

The hottest properties sold quickly, with vacant schools on the North Side netting the biggest profits.

The former Courtenay Elementary building in Ravenswood sold to the German International School for $5.3 million last year, followed closely by Trumbull Elementary in Andersonville, which sold in 2015 for $5.25 million. After the developer’s rehab plans fell through, they instead sold it to the Chicago Waldorf School. Stewart Elementary in Uptown sold for $5.1 million and has been converted into luxury apartments.

Sales have generated about $40 million dollars, enough to build just one new elementary school.

But as the efforts to sell and reuse the old schools faded, the dozens still on the market have been left to languish.

Expensive to rehab

Even though 21 vacant buildings have been purchased, in many cases, the new owners have struggled to do anything with them. Most remain vacant.

Ghian Foreman runs the Washington Park Development Group, which purchased the old Overton Elementary three years ago. He said there’s a sad, but simple explanation.

“If you look at the schools on the North Side, quite frankly, access to capital is easier,” Foreman said. “There’s only a few lenders we can go to. You may get some looks from other lenders, but the primary lenders in these communities are (nonprofit banks).”

Ghian Foreman's Washington Park Development Group bought the former Overton School but he has struggled to line up financing to redevelop it. (Manuel Martinez/WBEZ)

As real estate financing goes, big banks are still reluctant to finance projects in low-income neighborhoods.

“We believe [vacant school buildings] are valuable, and the residents believe they’re valuable, and the alumni believe they’re valuable, but the market’s perception of value? There is a fundamental disconnect,” said Kirby Burkholder, who specializes in school redevelopments for the nonprofit developer IFF.

Nick Vittore, with Svigos Asset Management, said even in the best markets, rehabbing old school buildings can be very expensive. Svigos owns three old Chicago schools, all on the North Side. The old Mulligan Elementary in Lincoln Park is now an apartment building.

“One classroom became an apartment so these are the original chalkboards, original wainscoting,” Vittore said. “These are the teachers coat closets that we convert into wardrobes.” Vittore said it would be easier to tear these old schools down and build new, but that just doesn’t feel right. “We feel more of a responsibility toward it,” he said.

Sales fall through

Several sales approved by the Chicago Board of Education never reached the finish line, and the properties remain on the district’s books, a WBEZ analysis of school board reports and publicly available real estate records found.

WBEZ counted six sales that fell through and seven more still pending.

The board approved the sale of two buildings to IFF — Bontemps and Dett schools — but neither deal closed.

In the case of Dett, which is in a gentrifying neighborhood near the United Center, a sale looked promising. But Burkholder said specific deed restrictions outlined by the community made the project financially unfeasible.

The restriction requires the gym, auditorium, kitchen, lunchroom, and library be reserved for community programming that must include three or more of the following: youth programming during non-school hours, mentoring or counseling, job training, GED or financial literacy classes, culinary programming, small business incubator space, or early childhood programs.

Other sales that never closed relied on limited public financing, like low-income housing tax credits, which are a rare commodity and hard to secure.

The former Laura Ward School in Garfield Park closed in 2013. It was sold but remains vacant. (Manuel Martinez/WBEZ)

From CPS to the city and other public agencies

Six vacant schools have been transferred to the city or sister agencies over the last five years. Most still sit vacant.

Though there are no city records of a sale, two of them are now controlled by politically connected pastors, who charge rent to privately run CPS alternative schools.

Three are in Woodlawn, where the city already owns 10 percent of all the properties. There is heightened interest and concern about the area as the construction of the Obama Presidential Center is set to begin in 2019.

City officials who control the vacant Fiske, Ross, and Wadsworth Elementary buildings, have not announced any plans for them. They are included in city development documents regarding development in the area. Another, the old Attucks Elementary, also sits vacant in an adjacent neighborhood.

And the old Pope Elementary on the West Side was transferred to the Chicago Housing Authority. It’s being converted to offices and low-income housing.

Schools are built to be schools

Before Chicago shuttered a record 50 schools all at once in 2013, WBEZ reported on vacant schools in Philadelphia.

Researchers at the Pew Charitable Trusts had just released a study of 327 vacant schools in 12 urban districts. At the time, the project director for that study said that schools sometimes are just meant to be schools.

“There aren’t a lot of other obvious uses for them,” Larry Eichel told WBEZ.

He’s still not wrong. Four of the 22 sold buildings are schools again. Private ones.

The hallway at the former Overton School in Bronzeville on the South Side. The owner hopes to turn it into a business incubator. (Manuel Martinez/WBEZ)

The historic building on the corner of Ashland and Foster avenues was once known as Trumbull Elementary. For 100 years, it was filled with children nearly every day. But for the last five, it sat vacant.

Until this fall, when it reopened as the Chicago Waldorf School.

“We have never owned our own home,” Luke Goodwin, administrative director of Chicago Waldorf, said. “We have been searching for a home for over 40 years.”

Teachers, parents, and students beamed with pride on the first day of school. While the closings were difficult for all of Chicago, Goodwin said, their school community is honored to bring life back to Trumbull.

“We always believed that this school should be a school,” he added.

West Sider Lynette Norwood is hoping for something similar in her neighborhood.

She’s reminded frequently of school closings whenever she passes Central Avenue and Madison Street. On the corner of that busy intersection sits the former Emmet Elementary, a century-old red-brick school building with graffiti on two sides and three stories of boarded-up windows.

“Get these schools back open,” she said. “Let’s get the mayor, governor, and everybody together, parents and teachers and figure out a way to get that school back open.”

Making every empty school a school again isn’t likely. Chicago has lost more than 42,000 students in the last five years.

But without an aggressive approach and money attached, it could still be years before the dozens of former school buildings are anything but vacant.

170 buildings affected by shakeups
Reused by Chicago Public Schools 110
Owned by CPS, leased or demolished 9
Owned by CPS, vacant 4
Put up for sale 47
Of the 47 put up for sale ...
For sale (vacant) 5
Other public agency (vacant) 5
Sale didn’t close (vacant) 7
Sale pending (vacant) 7
Sold + repurposed 13
Sold (vacant) 10

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. She previously covered Chicago schools. Follow her@beckyvevea.

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