A vacant lot at 18th and Canal streets, as seen from above Chinatown on Feb. 20, 2023. Organizers who have opposed plans for a new high school want city officials to consider this lot as an alternative location. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

NEAR SOUTH SIDE — Planning is underway to build a $150 million Near South Side high school — but the coalition of activists and residents opposing the plan is floating another site to avoid using public housing land for the project.

The group — led by Lugenia Burns Hope Center and People Matter — held a news conference Monday at a lot at 17th and Canal streets. Joined by Rep. Theresa Mah and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), organizers said that land would be a better fit for the community high school, which would serve families in Armour Square, Bridgeport, Chinatown, Bronzeville and the South Loop.

The lot between 17th and 18th and Canal and Stewart Avenue is northwest and across the Chicago River from Chinatown and Ping Tom Memorial Park.

A vacant lot that sits at the corner of 18th and Canal streets on Feb. 20, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The current plans would see the school built near 24th and State streets on vacant land formerly home to the Harold Ickes Homes public housing site, which was razed in 2011.

Mah, who fought to secure $50 million in state funding for the school, has threatened to yank that support because of the city’s process to choose the site. On Monday, she said the city should’ve made a better effort to “engage community members authentically” to decide on a site.

Mah said the area still needs a school — just not on former public housing.

“This site really wasn’t given consideration by the city because they were so quick to choose the one they decided on without consulting the community. As I understand it, the city had planned to do something with it that was related to CDOT,” Mah said. “I asked folks in the administration … about the feasibility of this site being used as a high school but never got a satisfactory reason why it wasn’t being considered.”

The land appeared vacant Monday, but it was not immediately clear what it is used for. Previous Google Maps images appear to show freight shipping containers there.

Some organizers said the land is city-owned, but property tax records point to New Chinatown Real Estate at 2168 S. Archer Ave., which is the location of Chinatown’s MingHin Cuisine. The owner did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Signs, broken fences and a freight container at the corner of 18th and Canal streets on Feb. 20, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

The Mayor’s Office declined to comment and deferred to Chicago Public Schools. In a statement, CPS spokesperson Samatha Hart did not specifically address the 17th and Canal site.

“Chicago Public Schools remains committed to providing strong neighborhood schools and that includes serving students and families in the Near South community,” Hart said. “The District continues to engage with all residents and stakeholders who are interested or impacted by the proposed new high school serving the South Loop, Bronzeville, Chinatown and Bridgeport.

“CPS remains dedicated to a transparent and collaborative engagement process and to ensuring that the future Near South High School serves the needs of this growing community.”

What Has Happened

Organizers have disagreed on whether the area needs a new high school at all. But they have coalesced around shared opposition to using public housing land for the project.

The district entered a $10.3 million land swap agreement with the Chicago Housing Authority in July. Part of that agreement calls for 244 units of CHA housing to be built as part of the Southbridge residential development next to the school site, which would allow some of the families displaced by the razing of the Harold Ickes Homes to return.

In December, the City Council approved $8 million in tax increment financing to buy some of the land involved in the swap.

The proposed site for the new Near South Side CPS high school, a vacant lot at 24th and State streets where the former Harold L. Ickes Homes sat. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Last month, CPS kicked off the first in a series of virtual community meetings to get input from affected families and explain how the school will take shape over the coming months.

An ad hoc committee created in November consisting of CPS staff, local school council members and community leaders will meet twice a month as they guide residents through the process of potentially creating the school, and they’ll gather feedback for future meetings.

One committee member — Bright Star Church pastor Chris Harris — has called for the district to provide a detailed plan of how it will support neighboring high schools like Dunbar, Tilden and Phillips in the event the new school opens by 2025.

The group will also help determine the school’s academic focus and building amenities in preparation for a status update amid the release of the 2023-24 Capital Plan in May, which will include the proposed high school. A final vote by the Board of Education will take place in June.

The district created a site where residents can learn more about the proposed high school and follow for updates.

The school will serve 1,200 students, 30 percent of them Black, according to the district.

Ald. Nicole Lee (11th) said in June she believes the school will address the “high school desert” that has been an issue for families on the Near South Side who must often venture out of the neighborhood for options.

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) speaks with Ald. Nicole Lee (11th) at a City Council meeting on June 22, 2022. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Mah said she believes Lee — who is fighting to keep her City Council seat — would be open to exploring other locations, even though the current location has the support of fellow Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

“It’s in her ward and she represents parts of the South Loop, so it seems clear that this is for those particular folks,” Mah said.

Lee did not immediately respond to a request for comment about using another site, though she’s previously said she’d be open to other locations if they’re viable.

In the coming weeks, the coalition hopes to meet with representatives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development who must approve any land disposition involving CHA. They hope to persuade the agency to nix the plan, organizers said.

Roderick Wilson, Lugenia Burns Hope Center executive director, told reporters he believes a potential new mayor — whoever that may be — may have more power to handle the matter than Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

“Hopefully, we’ll get a new mayor who truly values community engagement, and not ‘I’ll listen to whoever agrees with me,'” Wilson said.

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