LINCOLN PARK — Francis W. Parker School has been accused of attempting a “hostile” neighborhood takeover while trying to expand its campus — but representatives said Wednesday they have no immediate plans to buy more property.
Still, the school’s representatives said they’ll hold onto the units they’ve bought in another building for “long-term” planning, to the chagrin of some neighbors.
In a community meeting Wednesday, representatives from Parker, the 6-acre private school at 330 W. Webster Ave., presented plans to expand the campus by converting a newly-bought 19-unit condo building just north of the school at 317–325 W. Belden Ave. into classrooms.
Principal Dan Frank said the expansion could take about a decade and, “Parker has no intention to purchase either the [neighboring] Shakespeare Building or any of the townhouses on the 300 block of Belden” under current development plans.
However, Frank only ruled out buying more property in the short-term and said the school would keep any condos bought from other neighboring buildings for “long-term planning.”
“We are always thinking about the long-term future of the school and its relation to where the property is, and [whether] it’s continuous to the school,” Frank said. “We have nothing planned [for other properties] in the immediate term for at least a decade — if we get there.”
Aside from several questions about those long-term plans and concerns the expansion could bring more traffic to the congested area, neighbors were generally supportive of the expansion’s design.
Chip von Weise, who presented blueprints for the planned expansion, said the school will maintain the condo building’s facade to preserve the neighborhood’s “feel and character,” while renovating the inside for classrooms and administrative space.
Weise said the building’s courtyard will be converted into an atrium, and a bridge will be built at the south end of the second and third floors to connect the building to the main school.
Frank said the addition will likely house elementary or middle-school students and allow Parker to expand its enrollment by 80–100 people. The school’s current enrollment is about 930 students.
Stacy Scapino, who lives in the nearby Shakespeare Building, criticized Parker’s property purchases and said the school hasn’t demonstrated a need to expand beyond its 6-acre campus.
Scapino is part of the East Lincoln Park Neighbors Group, which advocates for maintaining the residential composition in the area and has described Parker’s property purchases as predatory.
Scapino said Parker’s acquisition of the 317–325 W. Belden building is just the latest in a yearslong effort to acquire more neighborhood land.
“Having a conversation about a facade is a bit premature because that’s not really the choice in front of us, which is whether we want to agree to an expansion,” Scapino said.
Homeowners at Belden by the Park, a nearby condo building at 327–335 W. Belden, filed a lawsuit against Parker in May accusing the school of covertly buying units in their building to take control and force a bulk sale.
Parker’s attorney declined to comment on the lawsuit during Wednesday’s hearing, but Frank said the school will not sell the six units it has acquired in the Belden by the Park building.
“We will own the units and continue to be available if any unit owners wish to sell to us,” Frank said. “But we have no plans to do any kind of development on it. We’re really focused on the 317 building only.”
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), whose office hosted the virtual meeting, said she heard a “fair amount of support” from neighbors for Parker’s expansion, but there were many concerns about traffic and whether it would affect the neighborhood’s “look and feel.”
The city is currently considering a proposal for a landmark district that would include the condo building Parker just bought.
Regardless of the outcome, Parker has committed to maintaining the building’s facade, but Smith assured neighbors the expansion would not happen until after the landmarking status is determined.
“Nothing is happening until we get some kind of conclusion about this landmarking because that is a really critical factor to me,” Smith said.
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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