NEAR SOUTH SIDE — A $150 million high school proposed for the Near South Side is a step closer to reality as the City Council signed off Wednesday on using $8 million in tax increment financing for the project.
The ordinance passed 45-5, with alderpeople Jeanette Taylor (20th), Matt Martin (48th), Rossana Rodriguez (33rd), Andre Vasquez (40th) and Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) voting against it.
The money would help Chicago Public Schools buy several parcels of land near 23rd Street and Wabash Avenue as part of a land swap with the Chicago Housing Authority. This would allow the district to build the school on the site of the former Harold Ickes Homes at 24th and State.
The proposed high school would serve 1,200 students living in parts of the South Loop, Bronzeville, Chinatown and Armour Square.
Wednesday’s vote is the latest in an ongoing battle between city officials and the coalition of activists and residents who want the school built elsewhere.
Rep. Theresa Mah (D-IL), who helped secure $50 million in state funding for the project, has vowed to withhold it until city leaders make good on their promise to work more closely with neighbors on the project.
CPS, city officials and some aldermen have supported the project in part to deliver on a long-promised high school for Chinatown and the growing Near South Side neighborhoods. While some neighborhood organizers disagree about whether the school is needed, many are aligned in their opposition to the school being built on the site of promised public housing.
“There has to be robust community engagement and full consideration of other sites. Show us why The 78 isn’t viable. Where are the studies? Where’s the data?” Mah told Block Club in October. “I’m astounded by the irresponsibility of the board who insist on pushing this through when funding hasn’t been fully secured.”
Part of the State Street land already is currently being redeveloped into the Southbridge mixed-income development, which would include 244 affordable apartments for CHA families.
Under the $10.3 million land deal, the district plans to lease the State Street land from the housing agency to build the school. CPS would give the deed for the Wabash parcels to the housing agency to complete the Southbridge development.
If the proposed plan falls through, the land-lease agreement made between CHA and CPS in July says the land returns to the housing agency.
In a tense exchange with a reporter Wednesday, Lightfoot rebuffed claims that the plan is controversial, saying residents in Chinatown and the South Loop “have universally said it’s a good plan.”
“It’s controversial maybe to one or two people but not for the folks who are in those areas that are actually going to benefit from this local high school. The cost of construction everywhere is going up and that’s something that we are are dealing with across every single project we’re involved with as a city. I’m confident that the resources will be there to make this high school a reality,” Lightfoot said.
A coalition of activists and residents led by Lugenia Burns Hope Center and People Matter have been protesting the proposed school for months, staging demonstrations outside City Hall and calling on Lightfoot to nix the plan. They want Jones College Prep repurposed to accept neighborhood students and funds diverted to existing schools in the district. They pointed to Wendell Phillips Academy, Dunbar Vocational High School and Tilden High School, which have suffered enrollment drops and underfunding for years.
The group has also been holding town hall meetings to engage residents on the issue. Lugenia Burns Executive Director Roderick Wilson said many families in the area had no idea of the plan, contrary to CPS’s promise to keep them in the know.
Upon learning of Wednesday’s vote, Wilson told Block Club the coalition will continue the fight.
“This is just another example of the mayor’s heavy handedness. She’s not concerned with what the community wants. She’s looking for a tagline for her reelection and trying to pacify the affluent residents of the city, which are the South Loop residents,” Wilson said. “Neither CPS or CHA did any real community engagement to find out what the community wanted. If they were actually listening, they wouldn’t be pushing this.”
Wilson applauded Mah for standing her ground and for being responsive to her constituents, adding that the coalition is planning more town halls in the new year.
Despite CPS’s pledge to make “additional investments” in Phillips, Dunbar and elementary schools in the area, the activist still fears that the proposed high school could cause the district to close those schools.
“Our demands have been the same…at least a $10 million investment for the schools that would be affected, and academic support for them,” Wilson said “Chinatown residents want the school built at The 78, and the Bronzeville residents want their housing back. We’re fighting this all the way.”