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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Plan To Turn Closed School Into Teacher-Focused Apartment Complex Tweaked To Appease Critics, But Will Neighbors Get On Board?

Ald. Daniel La Spata's policy staffer said the alderman is seeking more feedback from neighbors before it heads to a key city panel for approval.

A rendering of the Teachers Village project, looking south on Rockwell Street.
Courtesy of RBH Group
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HUMBOLDT PARK — Humboldt Park neighbors will soon have another chance to weigh in on a long-stalled plan that would convert the shuttered Von Humboldt Elementary School into an apartment complex geared toward teachers.

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) is holding a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at his ward office, 1958 N. Milwaukee Ave. This will be the third community meeting on the project since La Spata took office.

At the first meeting, which drew nearly 200 neighbors, many of the neighbors who spoke during the public comment portion raised concerns. They argued the project doesn’t address the neighborhood’s displacement problem and teachers won’t be able to afford the proposed rents. Some said they’d much rather the city reopen Von Humboldt Elementary.

Project supporters, on the other hand, said the opponents are taking their frustrations out on the wrong people.

RBH Group’s latest proposal calls for repurposing the vacant school at 2620 W. Hirsch St. and carving out 107 apartments and five townhomes with 53 parking spaces, according to the Plan Commission agenda. Roughly half of the apartments would be reserved as affordable housing. Some would be limited-income units marketed toward teachers.

The developer is also looking to build out classrooms, community space and offices in the building.

The goal is to create a community where teachers can live, eat, shop and take classes. The project is modeled after an existing RBH Group development in downtown Newark, New Jersey, also called “Teachers Village,” which is made up of three charter schools, a daycare center, apartments and retail shops.

RBH Group first pitched its redevelopment proposal back in 2016, when Proco “Joe” Moreno was 1st Ward alderman.

La Spata in June said he wouldn’t support it unless the developer agreed to incorporate more two- and three-bedroom apartments geared toward families.

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

La Spata asked the acting commissioner of the city’s Plan Commission to remove the project from the June 20 Plan Commission meeting agenda, essentially quashing the project until further notice. 

Since then, La Spata and his staffers have been soliciting community feedback on the proposal and asking the developer to make changes based on that feedback.

“This project has really tested what a community-based process looks like for our office, and we are trying to build a thorough community process from start to finish,” La Spata’s policy director, Nicholas Zettel, said in an email.

Aside from more units for families, the developer also agreed to reserve all of the affordable apartments for Chicagoans earning 50 percent of the Area Median Income or below because the city changed the way it calculates affordable units, Zettel said.

Zettel said the income requirement for the apartments geared toward teachers — 100 percent of the Area Median Income — is “largely consistent with many teaching salaries in 1st Ward Schools, and even many of the crucial professional support staff that help make our schools great.”

Reached by phone Wednesday, La Spata said he supports the reworked proposal because it incorporates more family-sized and affordable apartments.

“It’s a strong improvement from where we started,” the alderman said. 

“I really believe that this reflects the values and concerns people have brought to me, but I’m going to still work to be as responsive as possible to the interests [of] our neighbors.”

Zettel also noted that upping the number of affordable apartments has created a “financing gap” for the developer, but “this was expected by Dept. of Housing and our office and we remain in discussions to bring this affordable housing financing to the project.”

Zettel said the alderman is seeking more feedback from neighbors before the latest plan heads to a key city panel for approval. The project is on the city’s Plan Commission Nov. 21 meeting agenda.

Ron Beit, CEO of RBH Group, said he’s confident the project will go up for a vote at Plan Commission.

“When we’ve had the meetings, not only the public meetings, but private meetings, I do think both sides of the community really want this,” Beit said.

“I think folks who are very upset about the closing of the school know that having a project for teachers that’s 50 percent affordable is as good an outcome as you can get for this facility.”

Beit added that “while there’s been a lot of rancor at these meetings, it’s really been a forum for something else that’s going on in the neighborhood that’s been going on for some time.”

“In the end, this is a project that the neighborhood is going to be proud of,” he said.

Von Humboldt Elementary 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.

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