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Neighbors push planned Obama Prep school out of park

Mayor Rahm Emanuel will change the site of a new, $60 million selective enrollment high school named after President Barack Obama under pressure from Near North Side residents concerned about a shortage of parking and the loss of precious park land, the local alderman predicted Friday.

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) said seven alternative sites on the Near North Side have been identified, most of them owned by the Chicago Housing Authority. A few of the sites are controlled by the city, the Chicago Park District or private owners.

Once City Hall determines which parcels are feasible, community input that was sorely lacking the first time around will be sought, the alderman said.

One way or another, the $60 million showcase school that will become Chicago’s 11th selective enrollment high school will not be built in the middle of Stanton Park, Burnett said.

“It will be moved and it should be moved because it’s not a good spot. It’s just too tight. There’s no parking. It’s a congested area between two grammar schools and it’s taking away existing park space. We just got money to fix the park. We don’t want to mess up the park. We want to enhance it,” the alderman said.

“You’re talking about young people coming from all over the city. Most of them are gonna drive. So are the teachers. Quest and Skinner [elementary schools] are having their own challenges with parking without another school being there. Skinner is negotiating with Target [to use store parking]. We encouraged them to look at other spots. They agreed.”

Meghan Harte, Emanuel’s deputy chief of staff and point person on the Obama Prep project, could not be reached for comment on the possible site change. Other City Hall sources acknowledged that a site change was in the works to appease area residents and their local alderman.

In an emailed statement, Chicago Public Schools spokesman Joel Hood said, “The announcement of a new school in this area was the first step and, as CPS has done in the past, we are engaging in a conversation with the community about potential locations within the neighborhood. CPS remains committed to ensuring that every child throughout the city has access to high-quality education choices and resources they need to succeed.”

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Education, President David Vitale all but ruled out an oft-suggested use of the old Near North Career Metropolitan High School at 1450 N. Larrabee, which the district shut down in 2001.

“The issue around Near North High School … is much more complicated than you might imagine,” Vitale said. “I believe even at this stage we no longer control that property. And prior to the transfer of the ownership to the CHA with respect to that property it was tied up in legal proceedings that were quite complicated…so the building is actually not available to us at this stage.”

On April 24, Emanuel unveiled plans to use tax increment financing to build the school in the middle of Stanton Park, 618 W. Scott.

The plan has stirred controversy because it follows Emanuel’s decision to close 50 public schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South and West Side.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that it would be less than a mile from Walter Payton College Prep, which is in line for a $14 million, TIF-funded expansion, and within about a mile-and-half of four elite public high schools.

Four days after the initial announcement that ignored painstaking plans to redevelop an area that once included Cabrini Green, Harte appeared at a community meeting to fall on her sword.

She acknowledged that area residents were not consulted before City Hall made the decision to build the school in Stanton Park and that the “communication gap” was a mistake.

“I’m here to take full responsibility for that on behalf of the city and on behalf of the different agencies,” Harte told area residents on April 28.

“We’ve been looking for an opportunity to put a selective-enrollment [school] somewhere in the city that was centrally located, and within the last couple of weeks, there’s been a communication gap.”

Burnett couldn’t agree more. He argued Friday that the mayor’s plan was cloaked in secrecy and rushed into action, simply because City Hall was under the gun to include funding for Obama Prep in the CPS capital plan. The plan was released on May 2.

“They can’t do anything capitalwise if it’s not in their budget. That was one of the rushes to get that in there,” Burnett said.

“That was just an initial announcement. He was trying to do it for expediency to meet the board’s capital plan, but in the process, folks weren’t included. The reaction in the community was, `This happened so quick. Why didn’t we know about it?’ They’re happy about the school, but they want to be engaged.”

Once a new site is chosen, Burnett said he will turn his attention to the boundaries for a 30 percent “neighborhood preference” already in place at Jones and Westinghouse high schools.

The alderman said he wants boundaries for the neighborhood set-aside to be “as narrow as possible.”

“The ideal thing would be in the area of the Cabrini Green redevelopmement — from the Chicago River to Wells and Chicago Ave. to North,” Burnett said.

“What this school will do is help subsidize redevelopment and bring market-rate people to the area who may want to buy. That helps us build CHA replacement housing. This school amenity is an amenity that will help the Near North community be competitive with all of the other nice housing stock surrounding us that don’t have mixed-income.”

Burnett demanded the neighborhood preference — after it was promised, but never delivered at Walter Payton — in exchange for allowing money from his local TIF to be used for the Payton expansion.

Roughly 70 percent of the 1,200 seats will be filled through the highly competitive admissions process already in place for Chicago’s 10 other selective enrollment high schools.