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High school once named Obama Prep could be built on riverfront

Ald. Walter Burnett (right), shown with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, says potential sites for a new selective-enrollment high school have been narrowed to three sites in his 27th Ward, but he prefers a parcel at Halsted and Division, near Goose Island. Emanuel initially had wanted to name the school after President Barack Obama and bulid it in the middle of Stanton Park, but bowed to public pressure. | File Photo

A vacant riverfront parcel at Division and Halsted has emerged as the frontrunner for construction of a new, $60 million selective-enrollment high school that Mayor Rahm Emanuel initially had planned to name after President Barack Obama.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said two other sites also in his ward are still in the running: the shuttered Near North High School on Larrabee near Clybourn, which is now controlled by the Chicago Housing Authority, and Chicago Park District land at Hudson and Locust, near the Jesse White Center.

But Burnett said he favors the privately-owned riverfront parcel at Division and Halsted near Goose Island because it has everything the mayor’s original plan for Stanton Park lacked.

Plenty of room for parking. No conflict with nearby schools or parks. And it won’t take away land the CHA needs to build replacement housing.

Top mayoral aides have spent the last few months vetting alternative sites and getting reaction to those sites at community meetings — the kind of advance work that was sorely lacking the first time around.

If area residents agree at yet another meeting next month, Burnett wants the Emanuel-controlled Public Building Commission to start negotiating with the unidentified owner of the riverfront parcel.

“It would be a beautiful site for a high school. Good transportation. It wouldn’t disrupt any neighborhood. They could have sufficient parking. They could have everything,” Burnett said.

Chicago Public Schools spokesman Bill McCaffrey had no immediate comment on the search for a new site.

PBC spokesperson Molly Sullivan issued an emailed statement that read, “PBC and CPS continue to evaluate potential sites in the community for the proposed selective enrollment high school. We have presented these sites to community groups and will present them again in January to another community organization as we continue to identify the best and most appropriate site for this new school.”

Burnett noted that the riverfront parcel was once under consideration as the site of Walter Payton College Prep. That school ultimately was built at 1034 N. Wells St.

“One of the challenges with the river site is environmental clean-up. But I want them to pursue it. Most likely, the community would want that, too, because it’s not taking away anything. It’s the least controversial site,” Burnett said.

Burnett acknowledged that clean-up and land acquisition costs could raise the overall price tag of the school beyond Emanuel’s projected $60 million. But he argued it would be worth the added cost.

“The initial process was kind of knee-jerk. I commend the mayor for stepping back and saying, ‘Maybe I wasn’t as sensitive as I should be.’ It takes a big person to go back to the drawing board. They’re [now] taking time and trying to be sensitive to me and the community,” the alderman said.

That initial process started on April 24, when Emanuel unveiled plans to use tax-increment financing funds to build Chicago’s 11th selective-enrollment high school and name it after Obama, whose 2011 endorsement of his former White House chief of staff sealed the deal with black voters.

The plan stirred controversy because area residents were not consulted and because it so closely followed Emanuel’s decision to close 50 public schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South and West Sides.

Adding salt to the wound was Emanuel’s earlier decision to spend $17 million in TIF money to expand Payton in the shadows of Stanton Park.

A few weeks later, Burnett disclosed that the site for the new school — in the middle of Stanton Park, 618 W. Scott — would be changed under pressure from Near North Side residents concerned about a shortage of parking and the loss of precious park land.

Emanuel subsequently dropped the name, acknowledging he had “made a mistake” in his “rush to honor” his former boss.

The showcase school – with space for 1,200 high-achieving students, 30 percent of them from the surrounding community — is central to Emanuel’s plan to give parents more high-quality options to prevent families from fleeing to the suburbs when their children approach high school age.

This year alone, applications for coveted spots in Chicago’s 10 selective-enrollment high schools rose by 8 percent. That left 16,440 students vying for 3,200 seats.

On Wednesday, Burnett was asked whether he’s concerned that the protracted search for a new site could shift the educational plum to another part of town.

“The mayor is committed to creating more selective enrollment seats in the city. Am I afraid it’s not gonna happen in my area? Yeah. I’m always afraid of that. But we have the resources to subsidize it. We actually have two TIF’s right there. I don’t know if the other areas have the money for it,” Burnett said.

“That’s one of the main reasons why we were chosen. It’s not that the mayor loves me or loves our ward. He wants our money.”

Emanuel has defended the location close to Payton as pivotal to both accessibility and financing.

“Because it serves the entire city, it has two different rail lines, four different bus lines, open land and it’s all being funded by TIF,” the mayor said on the day he announced the plan.

“That makes the choices come down dramatically to literally less than a handful.”