MAS CONTEXT: Chicago School Closures: Ten Years Later (Chicago 7 2014)

“In the spring of 2013, Chicago Public Schools announced that the district would be closing forty-nine public schools, the largest school closure in the nation’s history. As the schools were mapped, a pattern emerged that Chicagoans were already familiar with: the schools slated for closure were concentrated on the city’s historically disinvested South and West Sides. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) cited three indicators (utilization rate, performance levels, and state standards on test scores as determining factors) in justifying which schools would be closed.

“As the tenth anniversary of the 2013 school closures approaches, I have looked into how the forty-nine closed schools have been repurposed, sold, adaptively reused, or left vacant, and the forces—economic, social, and political—that have shaped their outcomes.

“As of January 2023, twenty-four of the original group of forty-nine schools closed in 2013 have been converted into new schools or combined with other schools and are currently educating students. Three have been turned into market-rate housing and one has become affordable senior housing. Two have been demolished, one for a new development of single-family homes.

“Thirteen schools, all currently owned by the Public Building Commission, remain mothballed and vacant, without any city-approved or supported plans for their sale or reuse. Five of these schools are located on the West Side: Matthew A. Henson Elementary, Genevieve Melody Elementary, John Calhoun North Elementary, R. Nathaniel Dett Elementary, and Nathan R. Goldblatt Elementary. Eight schools are located on the South Side, including Arna Bontemps Elementary, Betsy Ross Elementary, Garrett A. Morgan Elementary, Alfred D. Kohn Elementary, Francis Parkman Elementary, Songhai Elementary School Learning Institute, Elihu Yale Elementary, and Robert A. Lawrence Elementary. According to CBRE Group, the real estate company managing the portfolio of the 2013 closed schools, a stoppage on sales has been initiated by the Office of Mayor Lori Lightfoot. The Mayor’s Office was not able to be reached for comment.

“The first school to sell in 2016 was Elizabeth Peabody Elementary in Noble Square, on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Purchased by Svigos Asset Management, the developers pursued listing on the National Register of Historic Places in order to take advantage of Federal Historic Tax Credits, and also worked with the City of Chicago to designate the building as a Chicago Landmark. ‘The preservation piece was a distinguishing factor for us,’ said Nick Vittore of Svigos Asset Management. ‘Doing the landmark designation was a well-received approach from the alderman’s office and the community.’ In redeveloping Peabody for residential tenants, Svigos worked with Pappageorge Haymes Partners, who focused on historic features such as original maple floors, bookshelves, and built-ins, a formula that worked with previous adaptive reuse projects of closed CPS schools that Svigos Asset Management had completed.

“‘We saved all of the original features we could,’ added Vittore. ‘The tenants can’t get enough of the bookshelves, and they use them all.’ Yet, adaptive reuse at such a detailed level added costs to the project. “The idea that these schools can be closed and flipped into other uses is very difficult money-wise, and it’s not like regular new construction where you can put up an eight-foot wall. The volumes in these buildings are big, and they have fourteen-inch-thick masonry walls.” The Peabody School Apartments began welcoming tenants in 2022.” (Blasius, MAS CONTEXT, January 2023)

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