In a surprise move, schools chief Pedro Martinez last month pulled a proposal to build a high school in the South Loop at the last minute when it looked as if it did not have the votes to pass.
But elements of the plan are moving forward, despite big questions about whether it’s needed in a city with declining enrollment and several nearly empty high schools. The plan is also generating anger because the school is slated to be built on public housing land.
The Chicago Housing Authority on Tuesday will consider applying to the federal government to lease the land at 24th and State to Chicago Public Schools. That’s where CPS officials want the school built. That land was part of the former Harold Ickes Homes, which was all public housing, and is supposed to be redeveloped into a mixed-income housing and retail development.
In exchange, CHA would get two additional parcels of land a few blocks away. It is unclear whether the city owns the land it is swapping or still needs to purchase it. In a statement, CHA officials said the proposal is still in the conceptual phase, but that they believe “this proposed neighborhood high school, which would serve students from several CHA developments, would directly benefit families living in public housing for years to come.”
But some public housing residents say they think this is a ploy to get out of adding affordable housing in the area. The master plan calls for an 877-unit development, including 244 units for CHA residents.
Some 206 units are done, CHA said. That was supposed to include 68 public housing units, 26 affordable units and 112 units for people who can pay market rate. When CHA launched its plan to transform public housing in 1999, more than 800 families lived in Ickes, all in public housing.
“While I do not have a problem with anybody coming into our neighborhoods, I do have a problem with CHA constantly gentrifying our neighborhood,” said Etta Davis,vice president of the advisory committee for the Dearborn Homes, a nearby public housing development. “And so when you try to come into our neighborhood and because you think we are public housing residents and we are dumb. Then, I do have a problem.”
Davis said she thinks it’s wrong to move forward with the proposal before community engagement. There’s a meeting at the Dearborn Homes on Thursday about this proposal, two days after the CHA board votes, she said.
In a related development, Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Friday announced that she was putting former Ald. Michael Scott on the Chicago Board of Education and pushing out a board member who questioned the use of public housing land for a school. Scott, who has not returned calls from WBEZ, is seen as a strong mayoral ally.
Lightfoot’s office would not comment on why she decided not to extend the term of Dwayne Truss, except to say he would be pursuing new opportunities. But Truss said he had been told previously that he would continue and then suddenly in early July was told “the mayor is going in a new direction.”
Lightfoot has said there’s “absolutely” a “great need for a high school” that would serve the South Loop. She said the elementary schools in the area are “bursting at the seams.”
She added that Chinatown residents have been asking for a high school to serve their community for a long time. Theresa Mah, the state representative for the Chinatown community, got $50 million set aside for the new high school from the state. CPS was set to put in an additional $70 million.
Truss notes he is not necessarily against a new high school, but disappointed in the lack of community engagement. He especially did not want to see the new high school going on CHA land without buy-in from area public housing residents.
Truss said board members even asked to speak with public housing leaders, yet that meeting was never set up.
“And so it is like, ‘what is the big secret?’ ” Truss said. “Why was there a barrier to having this conversation? I will say that was a big factor in destroying trust. And if you are going to destroy trust with board members, how are you going to have trust with the public?”
Truss also said board of education members were told that public housing residents were “all for” giving up CHA land for the new high school. The CHA land would be swapped for land a few blocks away at 23rd and 24th and Wabash, according to the proposal in front of the housing authority.
But public housing activists say they doubt any housing for low-income residents will ever be built. Some 300,000 Black residents have moved out of Chicago since the city started tearing down public housing projects under the 1999 CHA Plan for Transformation, said Roderick Wilson, executive director at Lugenia Burns Hope Center, an advocacy group. He pointed out that the land at 24th and State has been vacant for more than 20 years.
“The point of the plan was to push people out of the community,” he said. “We have been pushed out of the city by prices and increasing rents and also because we haven’t been getting the housing the community deserves.”
Davis pointed out that a new Mariano’s was also put on former CHA land. She said that the city was not interested in putting a new school or grocery store in the area when it was flush with subsidized apartments.
“When all of those Black people were living over there, we lived in a food desert,” she said. While Davis said she appreciates the Mariano’s, she said housing is needed.
“There’s too many people that you see sleeping up under the bridges, too many homeless people here in the city of Chicago,” she said. “We don’t need any more homeless people. You have 120,000 people on the CHA waiting lists.”