Three summers ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel dropped a proverbial bomb on the residents of the city’s South and West sides: the Chicago Board of Education voted to close more than 50 of the city’s public schools. The move, as expected, sparked outrage, however, the city moved forward with the plan to close many of the schools. Dozens of these buildings have good bones and even some important historical integrity, so the city marked many for being repurposed. A handful have been repurposed by the Chicago Public School system for administrative use or other uses, however, many are available for developers to transform into residences and commercial space. And that’s exactly what some developers are doing at the moment.
In a blog post on Medium, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development (yes, the DPD apparently blogs now) offered a first look at one of these adaptive reuse projects. They offer some details on how the process works: developers express interest in a property, seek landmarking designation for tax credits and waivers, and then begin the renovation. A suburban developer, Svigos Asset Management, is currently working to renovate the Elizabeth Peabody Public School at 1444 W. Augusta Blvd. and the John Lothrop Motley Public School at 739 N. Ada St. — of which both have addresses the highly coveted West Town area. The group is also working on getting landmark status for the Lyman Trumbull Elementary School in Andersonville for an adaptive reuse project there.
The developer is renovating these schools and turning them into new residential developments. In their post, the DPD reveals photos of the former James Mulligan School being transformed into apartments. To be fair, the Mulligan School has been shuttered for much longer than the schools that were closed a few summers ago. However, the building is nearly ready to go and the DPD indicates that the building’s new owner is gearing up for pre-leasing.
Still, many more schools remain on the city’s books sitting vacant and providing no services to their communities. Sure, developers should be commended on landmarking historically significant buildings and for breathing new life into them, but will they take the same chances on a shuttered school in Garfield Park as they will on one in West Town? The answer is probably not. The shuttered schools that have not been sold off still belong to the city and its residents, and some neighborhoods are looking to take these buildings back as community centers, food pantries, or other uses that would serve the surrounding residents. Many schools that have been left vacant have been vandalized and looted. And the odds are, the longer some of these schools sit idle, the more difficult they may be to repurpose.