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Lakefront school site questioned

Plans to build a new school on Rainbow Beach Park needlessly take away valuable green space — and violate the Lakefront Protection Ordinance — according to South Shore residents, backed by Friends of the Parks.

Organized by the South Shore Community Organization, residents will rally in the park at 75th and South Shore on Saturday, March 7 from noon to 2 p.m., to inform residents of what’s going on and what they can do about it.

Though the project’s been in the works for several years, Lucille Young says she and her neighbors learned of it only in November, when they were notified of a Public Building Commission meeting. The PBC is legally required to notify residents within 250 yards of a proposed project when a hearing is scheduled.

Powell Elementary School, 7530 S. South Shore Drive, was among the schools listed to receive a new building when Mayor Daley unveiled his Modern Schools program in 2006.

What neighbors learned in November was that the city and CPS were planning to put the new building across the street, on a huge swath of land that comprises the northern entrance to Rainbow Beach Park.

Winding along the lakefront and around a water filtration plant, Rainbow Beach is hidden behind houses and apartment buildings on South Shore Drive — except for the half-block portion south from 75th that extends to the drive, which is the only real pedestrian access point.

A vehicle entrance on 79th Street has been shut down; another entrance off a small cul-de-sac on 77th opens with a long drive to parking lots near the fieldhouse and beach facility. That section has baseball fields and basketball, tennis, and handball courts.

The 75th Street area, where the new school is to go, is a large grassy area with trees and benches. It’s favored by older park users, Young said, including many seniors living right across 75th Street. “People are always sitting in the area” in nicer weather, she said. “It’s a very cozy and intimate atmosphere. It’s quieter than the rest of the park.”

She and her neighbors came together, forming SSCO to learn more and explore alternatives. Working with Friends of the Parks, they toured local schools and developed a list of possible alternatives to building on the parkland.

The Powell School building has a design capacity (a measure some have criticized as imprecise) of 615 students and an enrollment of 518, according to data presented by CPS at a Public Buildings Commission hearing in November. The school also uses two trailers (with a total capacity of 120) and leases a nearby Catholic school (with room for 330). The new elementary school would have room for 900 students.

SSCO and FOTP point out there’s lots of room on Powell’s existing land to build a new school building (there’s a large parking lot with two trailers parked in it), and adjacent land is available; that could be done in tandem with upgrading the existing building.

A few blocks away, Bradwell Elementary has room for a major expansion, they say. A single story addition built there in 1971 is currently not in use and slated for demolition due to asbestos problems, according to John Paul Jones of FOTP.

Also in the immediate area, the St. Bride Catholic Elementary building, currently leased for use by Powell, could be acquired by CPS, they say.

SSCO passed a petition calling for consideration of alternatives and, after many requests, met with Alderman Sandi Jackson (7th Ward). “She said everything is already in motion,” according to Young, and dismissed the group’s proposals as inadequate.

“They were not interested in listening to us,” she adds. “I don’t know why they’re so set on taking away the green space.”

Young is concerned that Powell parents have been given the impression that SSCO is opposing their new school. “They do need a new facility,” she said. “Surely we can have both. Surely we can have a new school without losing our precious green space….We believe the kids and the community deserve both.”

Jones says parents don’t realize the new school may not be intended for their children. “I believe [CPS] will shift [Powell] to some kind of magnet or selective enrollment strategy,” he said. “All these new schools they build are being used for these kind of models.”

Built in 1975, Powell is more modern by many decades than other nearby elementary schools, which have structures dating to the 1920s and earlier. And according to recent CPS building evaluations, Powell has only $3.1 million in unfunded capital needs, significantly less than the other schools (Bradwell has $5.6 million).

Jones said Powell was not originally on Daley’s Modern Schools list and was placed there only at the insistence of then-Alderman William Beavers.

The city has argued that the project is exempt from the Lakefront Protection Ordinance because it’s listed there as a private zone. In fact the land in question was acquired by the Chicago Park District in the 1980s, after the ordinance was adopted, for express use as parkland — and toward fulfilling the ordinance’s first priority, completing the lakefront park system, said Erma Tranter of FOTP.

The city may be assuming that the cost of mounting a legal challenge is prohibitive, since it could require posting a large bond to cover potential costs of construction delays, she said. “The park district holds that land in the public trust,” she said. “You would expect them to uphold the law.”

She adds that a park district plan lists the South Shore community as having a significant need for additional park facilities. The only other neighborhood-size park in the area, Rosenblum Park, has been given to CPS to build a new South Shore High School. The site of the old high school will eventually be turned into park, but Rosenblum’s field house will not be replaced.

SSCO will be urging neighbors to attend the City Council Zoning Committee meeting on the matter, currently scheduled for March 26.

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Category: CPS, parks, schools, South Shore

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