Repurposing vacant schools is a no-brainer

A smart, concerted effort, as envisioned by Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox, finally seems to be taking shape nine years after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 schools at once.

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West Pullman Elementary School, 11941 S. Parnell Ave., closed in 2013, has since been redeveloped as senior housing. But many of the dozens of schools closed that year remain empty.

West Pullman Elementary School, 11941 S. Parnell Ave., closed in 2013, has since been redeveloped as senior housing. Many of the dozens of schools closed that year remain empty.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Almost a decade has gone by since dozens of schools, all but a few in impoverished communities of color, were shuttered all at once by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

It was — still is — the largest mass school closing in the nation’s history. Thousands of students were forced to switch schools, and they usually fared no better educationally afterward.

Meanwhile, community activists warned the Emanuel administration and school officials about the utter folly of shuttering schools in neighborhoods already overwhelmed with vacant lots and boarded-up buildings.

Their warnings, for the most part, came true. Schools that were once places of education and community hubs became — in too many cases, still are — empty, hulking albatrosses that were targets of vandalism and other petty crime.



With that sorry history in mind, it’s great to see that the city’s top planning official is making a concerted effort to repurpose the remaining shuttered schools, as the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman reported Wednesday.

A concerted, smart effort, as envisioned by Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox, is long overdue. And frankly, such plans should have been made nine years ago, right after those 50 schools were closed — or better yet, before they were shut down.

At least the effort is taking shape now, as Cox made clear would happen not long after he arrived in Chicago in 2019.

On Wednesday, Cox said at a City Council Budget Committee meeting that repurposing closed schools is “one of the biggest opportunities yet to be tapped” to revive Black neighborhoods on the South and West sides.

Working closely with the surrounding communities — “because they have very clear ideas about what they need,” as Cox once said — makes perfect sense. That’s a refreshing change from the top-down approach the Emanuel administration took when it closed the schools in the first place.

We bet there are plenty of grassroots ideas out there for making good use of these structures. Shuttered schools have resources like library space, auditoriums, kitchens, playgrounds and more, all of which could be used to help revive neighborhoods of color that desperately need safe places for recreation, entrepreneurship, housing, artistic space and more.

Success stories out there

Cox’s idea is to repurpose parts of those shuttered schools, he told the budget committee, “instead of having to marshal all of the resources that it takes to renovate an entire school.”

“I think we could bring many [or at least] a number of these schools back into service for community purposes,” Cox said. “It may only be the gymnasium. It may only be the cafeteria. But imagine what that could do for those particular schools.”

There are already success stories out there. For one, there’s the former West Pullman Elementary School at 119th Street and South Parnell Avenue, which is now senior housing. Ald. Carrie Austin (14th) suggests something similar for another abandoned school in Austin, which she says could be renovated into affordable housing.

In Englewood, the former Woods Math & Science Academy at 62nd Street and Racine Avenue is being redeveloped into a community center by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. Plans for the center include transitional housing for formerly incarcerated men, as well as a health clinic and other services.

It seems a no-brainer that closed schools should be repurposed, but we believe it’s worth a shout-out because of the years of inaction — or at best, half-hearted action — on this front.

Consider this: Four years after the 2013 closings, two-thirds of the 50 buildings remained vacant and little was being done to get community input into repurposing, as the Chicago Reporter, a nonprofit news outlet, reported in January 2017.

The same week that Reporter story was published, the Emanuel administration finally put 28 of the shuttered schools on the market for redevelopment. Even so, many of the 50 are still vacant, and 14 are still owned by the Chicago Public Schools.

There’s still work to be done. But finally, those in charge are committed to doing it.

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