Facing community opposition, CPS has stated it won't destroy the Waters garden to build an annex at the school. Credit: Patty Wetli/Block Club Chicago

LINCOLN SQUARE — After a tense week in which it appeared Waters Elementary would have to choose between the construction of a building annex and the destruction of the school’s beloved community garden, Chicago Public Schools has taken the garden “off the table” as a potential annex site.

Following a meeting on Friday with representatives from CPS and the Public Building Commission, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) and Waters Principal Titia Kipp released a joint statement: “Collectively, we decided that the south end of the school grounds — where the [300-year-old] Bur Oaks and native plant garden is located — will no longer be considered as a potential site for the new annex.” 

The announcement came as welcome news to members of the Waters community, as well as neighbors of the surrounding area, who had quickly marshaled opposition to a plan to construct a $24 million annex in the footprint of Waters garden, which serves as the focal point of the school’s nationally recognized ecology program.

Students, teachers, parents and neighbors had rallied last Wednesday to save the endangered garden, singing “We shall not be moved” and chanting “What do we want? Trees! When do we want them? Forever!”

“Student after student stopped me to ask if our garden was to be destroyed. I can’t express the look on their faces, the sadness and bewilderment. One child asked if we could bring the garden inside, to protect it,” Pete Leki, head of Waters ecology program, wrote in a note to garden supporters.

CPS appeared to be caught off guard by the community’s fierce devotion to the garden and the media attention the protest attracted, said Erica Smith, chairwoman of Waters Local School Council, who was present at Friday’s meeting.

“What’s happened so far, that’s just a taste. We have people willing to scale the trees, we have people willing to bring their families and camp out in the garden,” Smith said.

“What we’re talking about isn’t just a garden of raised beds for vegetables and flowers that could be moved,” she said. “As I said to them, ‘This is a community hub.’ People come and hang out after school and on weekends. It’s abuzz. It’s a huge community resource. All neighborhood schools should function that way.”

Carina Sanchez, executive director of the Public Building Commission, and Arnie Rivera, CPS chief operating officer, acknowledged at the meeting that there had been insufficient communication between the district and the Waters community regarding the annex, which was announced in July as part of CPS’ 2019 capital plan, Smith said.

A 300-year-old oak tree is among the garden treasures the Waters community is fighting to preserve. Credit: Patty Wetli/Block Club Chicago

At Friday’s meeting, hosted by Pawar in his ward office, Sanchez and Rivera committed to ongoing discussions with stakeholders to determine the appropriate site for the annex, building design, space needs and the programs the annex will support.

“We will work together to ensure that the school and community are informed about each step in the process and have an opportunity to voice their ideas and concerns. We are confident that we can develop a plan that both accommodates our growth as a school and community, and preserves a major asset for the city of Chicago [the garden],” Pawar and Kipp wrote in their joint statement.

Smith said she is cautiously optimistic that the district will hold true to its word. But she noted that no promises were made to never touch the garden in the future.

“It’s their property at the end of the day,” she said of CPS.

Leki encouraged garden supporters to remain on guard.

“One unexpected benefit of this crisis is the renewed commitment we have all felt, the realization that everything sacred and beautiful must be protected,” he wrote.

Credit: Patty Wetli/Block Club Chicago

“We have to be vigilant, and creative, and make good things happen, and connect with others, and value our relationships, and trust each other, and trust in the power of nature,” Leki said.

Throughout the process, Smith said she and Principal Kipp repeatedly expressed their gratitude for the proposed annex and excitement over the possibilities of what the building addition could mean for Waters.

The school has experienced an 86 percent jump in enrollment over the past 10 years and has maxed out existing space. According to Smith, last year’s three first-grade classes were consolidated into two second-grade classes this year for lack of a teacher and an available classroom. The school now has funds for a teacher but still nowhere to put the students.

Smith is aware that growing enrollment is a good problem to have, and she’s seen the comments that there are plenty of other schools that would gladly sacrifice trees and plants in exchange for Waters $24 million gift.

“The reality is, all of our schools need more. We’re all fighting over scraps; it pits us against each other when we should be supporting each other as neighborhood schools,” Smith said.

She credited Pawar for pressing Waters’ case with the powers that be.

“We have had continuous conversations with him over his two terms. We got [the annex] because we have a very devoted alderman, because he advocated for us,” Smith said. “That’s why aldermanic races matter.”

Water Elementary needs room to grow, but not at the expense of the school’s beloved garden and ecology program. Credit: Patty Wetli/Block Club Chicago

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