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St. Ignatius denies ‘land grab’ after alderman questions deal to use CPS land

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez is raising concerns over an agreement giving the prestigious private school use of an acre of public land in exchange for CPS use of St. Ignatius facilities.

A former Chicago high school football coach accused of sexually assaulting a player and distant relative.
The view looking north from Maxwell Street of an athletic complex with sports fields being built built by St. Ignatius College Prep, which can be seen in the distance (upper left of photo).
Sun-Times/Manny Ramos

A deal allowing a prestigious private school on the Near West Side use of nearly an acre of public land for the next 30 years is under fire from the neighborhood’s new alderman.

The deal involves St. Ignatius College Prep, a Jesuit Catholic school, and the Chicago Board of Education. According to a copy of a shared use agreement between the school board and the Inner City Education and Recreation Foundation, a non-profit arm of St. Ignatius, the Jesuit school is allowed to expand its new athletic complex onto 41,360 square feet of land adjacent to John M. Smyth Elementary, which is at 1059 W. 13th St. and is owned by the board.

The new facilities — which St. Ignatius expects to open at the start of the upcoming school year — will include new baseball, football and soccer fields and a 400-meter track spread across about 10 acres of land immediately south of Roosevelt Road between Blue Island Avenue and Morgan Street. St. Ignatius has put up signs advertising the area as home to its Wolf Pack sports teams.

The view of the St. Ignatius fields looking south from Roosevelt Road. Smyth Elementary School can be seen in the upper right of the photo.
Sun-Times/Manny Ramos

In exchange for use of the CPS land, Smyth “shall have first priority” to use the athletic facilities weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and whenever they are not being used by St. Ignatius, which has priority use at all other times, according to the preliminary agreement. St. Ignatius will also install new fencing around Smyth, a new LED marquee for the school and build a new playground for its students.

St. Ignatius also agreed to demolish a one-story Chicago Public Schools building on the corner of Blue Island Avenue and Maxwell Street and replace it with a driveway for Smyth students to be picked up and dropped off. The building — which has been vacant for a decade — used to house the Bernice M. Joyner Child-Parent Center.

A spokeswoman for CPS said Wednesday the entire project will “improve the efficiency, access and safety of the school’s drop off process, and provide students with access to a high-quality garden and athletic facilities during school hours at neighboring St. Ignatius.” She said the district is “aiming to have all of the renovations and upgrades completed by before the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.”

CPS officials did not respond to questions on the costs of the improvements being made to the properties. They wouldn’t say how much the public property that will become part of the athletic complex is worth or whether the land was even appraised.

A rendering of the new St. Ignatius athletic fields.
Provided/St. Ignatius

Alderman raises concerns

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) worries the move — which was initially approved in 2017 —represents another giveaway to the wealthy. Before he was elected alderman in April, Sigcho-Lopez headed the Pilsen Alliance neighborhood group, which held a protest before a Smyth Local School Council meeting in December saying the city needed to “protect Smyth” from Ignatius’ expansion plans.

“I’m concerned about this deal struck in a silo between CPS and other entities,” Sigcho-Lopez said in a statement Wednesday. “We’re talking about a significant piece of the community that affects the everyday lives of children and families. I’ve called on CPS to share the land-use agreement, so we can have a transparent public input process and ensure accountability.”

Earlier in the week, Sigcho-Lopez’s office tried to stop remediation crews from working on the Joyner building, saying it had not seen a final shared-use agreement despite repeated requests. The office went as far as to issue a letter “to cease and desist any construction work being conducted on Joyner Child-Parent Center until all necessary permits and relevant documentation is present[ed] to the Aldermen’s office.”

While the district spokeswoman said that agreement had been “finalized,” CPS did not respond to a Sun-Times request for a copy of it. The agreement was still listed as being in negotiations in the minutes of the last Board of Education meeting.

The Joyner Child-Parent Center will be torn down.
Sun-Times/Manny Ramos

Not a ‘land grab’

John Chandler, a vice president of St. Ignatius who oversees the school’s development projects, said the new athletic facilities and driveway will benefit Smyth students and the surrounding community.

“I want to dispel the notion that St. Ignatius is on some crusade of a land grab in the area,” Chandler said. “It’s a community benefit that would help the kids of Smyth school because there is no playground or recreational spaces for the kids at the moment.”

Smyth had playgrounds at each end of the school before construction of the complex started, and there was a large area with grass and trees. Neither St. Ignatius nor the Chicago Board of Education provided renderings showing the plans for the new playground or the proposed circular driveway that will be built where the Joyner building is now.

Smyth Principal Dr. Ron Whitmore could not be reached for comment. He and members of the local school council have expressed support for the deal.

Carlos Ballesteros and Manny Ramos are corps members of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.