Paola Aguirre in collaboration with Kalyn Belsha write this piece for the Chicago Architect Magazine – as part of this special issue related to the Chicago Architecture Biennial and focused on Chicago's investments in social infrastructure featuring: schools closures, Chinatown's neighborhood, and integrated public housing and libraries projects.
REVITALIZING CHICAGO’S CLOSED SCHOOLS
Could the city take a more holistic and equitable approach?
By Paola Aguirre and Kalyn Belsha
West Pullman’s Songhai Elementary School is massive: over 100,000 square feet stretching across nearly an entire city block on a residential street. Preservationists have flagged the century-old building as architecturally significant, and residents hope it will one day be open to the community again, especially its pool. There is no shortage of re-imaginings that could provide access to food, health care or job training in this community — yet wood boards still cover the windows and a green for-sale sign hangs outside.
In 2013, Chicago undertook the largest mass school closure in U.S. history, shuttering 49 elementary schools. Now, more than four years later, about half the school sites, including Songhai, remain vacant. Not surprisingly, the schools that are left are located in the city’s most economically depressed and underserved neighborhoods. By failing to transform more than 90 acres of land across 25 neighborhoods of public social infrastructure into other neighborhood assets, the city missed an opportunity to demonstrate its capacity of resilience.
In the months after the closures, a committee put together by Mayor Rahm Emanuel envisioned a speedy repurposing process. The group recommended the city reuse any schools it could, then put the others up for public bid or a redevelopment partner was to step in.
Plans stalled, and as time passed, many of those buildings deteriorated. Acknowledging the issue, Chicago Public Schools took over the repurposing process earlier this year and put the remaining vacant schools up for sale. Eighteen have sold so far, but sale prices have varied widely.
Properties on the more affluent North Side have fetched millions, such as Stewart Elementary School in Uptown, which sold for $5.1 million to developer Morningside Stewart, who plans to turn the building into luxury apartments. Meanwhile, buildings in low-income neighborhoods on the South and West sides have sold for far less. In Austin, the nonprofit Kidz Express purchased the former Leland Elementary School for $201,000, and in Grand Boulevard, Washington Park Development Group purchased the former Overton Elementary School for $325,000. Both projects incorporate community engagement components.
Foreseeing how our social infrastructures will transform and adapt is key for urban resilience. School closures are a symptom of broader challenges related to a declining school-age population(1), yet they represent an opportunity for creative and anticipatory planning that equally values the process and the outcome. Business as usual has not been a solution — no single public organization has the capacity to address a challenge of this unprecedented scale on its own. Could we think of former school sites more as capacity-building processes for their communities instead of mere real-estate transactions? It would require forging strategic partnerships for redevelopment — such as integrating public libraries with housing; dedicating specific funds and resources to match schools with suitable proposals; and using transparent and accessible tools for true community engagement.
(1) Chicago led growing charter school enrollment in the United States from 2005-2011 (Report “Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings New Life”, The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2013); and opened 62 percent of new charter schools from 2000-15 in areas that had school-aged population losses of 25 percent or more (Report “Closed by Choice: The Spatial Relationship between Charter School Expansion, School Closures and Fiscal stress in Chicago Public Schools”, The Project for Middle Class, UIUC, 2017).
Paola Aguirre Serrano and Kalyn Belsha have been seeking ways to reach broader audiences from their different fields of practice: Belsha in journalism by reporting on the status of repurposing schools and surrounding best practices; and Aguirre in urban design by crafting an initiative to engage the public in topics aiming to open a seemingly closed conversation to the public. This fall, as part of this initiative called Creative Grounds, a collaborative public program “Opening Closings” will be hosted at former Overton Elementary School.