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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Plan To Turn Closed School Into ‘Teachers Village’ In Humboldt Park Stalls: ‘They’re Going To Start From Square One,’ La Spata Says

Newly-elected Ald. Daniel La Spata is pushing for more affordable family-sized apartments — which are much-needed in the area.

Von Humboldt Elementary School has sat empty since 2013. The district closed the school in what has become known as the largest mass school closure in the country’s modern history.
Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
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HUMBOLDT PARK — Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) is pumping the brakes on the “Teachers Village” project, which calls for converting the vacant Von Humboldt Elementary School into an apartment complex geared toward teachers.

La Spata told Block Club he asked Eleanor Gorski, acting commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, to remove the project from the June 20 Plan Commission meeting agenda, essentially quashing the project until further notice. A spokesman for the city department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The current development proposal “does not meet my standards, the community’s standards or the standards of the teachers I’ve talked to,” the new alderman said.

A 2017 rendering of the proposed development, looking west on Rockwell Street.

“I took it to a number of 1st Ward teachers who came back to me and said this assumes that all teachers are single, don’t have kids and have salaries that come with 10-20 years of experience. They said what they’re seeing does not work for teachers or paraprofessionals.”

Newark-based RBH Group is behind the proposal. The East Coast developer is looking to repurpose the vacant school at 2620 W. Hirsch St. and carve out approximately 116 apartments, classrooms, community space and offices. The proposal also calls for 53 parking spaces and 9,300 square feet of retail space.

Under the current proposal, 24 percent of the apartments would be affordable for Chicagoans making no more than 60 percent of the area’s median income. About 35 percent would be for “middle-income” teachers and about 40 percent would be for market-rate renters.

The project is modeled after an existing RBH Group development in downtown Newark — also called “Teachers Village,” which is made up of three charter schools, a daycare center, apartments and retail.

The Humboldt Park project appeared to be moving forward as of last week. RBH Group introduced a zoning change at last week’s City Council meeting. The developer also managed to get the proposal on the city’s Plan Commission agenda for the June 20 meeting, according to La Spata.

“It was frustrating to see them essentially jumping the gun,” the alderman said.

In a written statement, RBH Group CEO Ron Beit said the proposal wasn’t on the June 20 meeting agenda.

“We met with the alderman about this project shortly after he was elected. We have been engaging in a robust community process over the past few years, which has resulted in numerous changes to the project. We look forward to working with Ald. La Spata to address any concerns he may have,” the statement reads.

Von Humboldt Elementary School shuttered in 2013 when the district closed a record 50 schools, the largest mass school closure in our country’s modern history.

La Spata said while he doesn’t want the school to continue to sit empty, he wants to ensure that redevelopment is in line with the wants and needs of the gentrifying community.

“The notion that this multi-use space that could be commercial, education, mixed-income had a lot of merit to it,” he said. “But we said to them — even coming out of the meeting — that this is a space that has a cultural identity to it so the development we see needs to respect the cultural identity.”

What La Spata would like to see is a much higher percentage of affordable housing — something like 50 percent. He also wants to see mostly family-sized units. The current proposal calls for mostly one-bedrooms and studios.

“I can’t come to the community and say 80 percent of the affordable units are going to be studios and one-bedrooms when I know that what people are literally desperately calling out for family-sized affordable units,” he said.

La Spata noted, however, that his asks aren’t what’s most important.

“It comes down to putting the community’s interests first,” he said.

RBH Group first pitched its redevelopment proposal back in 2016, when Proco “Joe” Moreno was alderman.

At one of the two community meetings on the matter, Moreno voiced support, saying, “I think this is a responsible, innovative and creative [project] … We’re not coming to you and saying we want rapid for-market development here. That’s what happened at those other schools.” In Uptown, shuttered Stewart Elementary School is now a luxury apartment complex.

La Spata acknowledges community meetings were held on the matter, but said since the current proposal is “substantially” different than the original version, “it’s worth essentially starting the process over.”

“They’re going to start from square one,” he said of the developer.

La Spata said he’s planning to meet with RBH Group in the coming weeks to see if they can come up with a proposal that’s fit for the community to review. If the proposal wins the support of the broader community will he sign off on it, he said.

“When we bring it to a public meeting that doesn’t mean it already has my approval. … Us bringing it simply means we feel like this project is worthy of consideration. It doesn’t mean that I’ve made any decision,” he said.

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