Ald. Burnett says selective-enrollment high school plan ‘going backwards’

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Alderman Walter Burnett, Jr. and Mayor Rahm Emanuel at an event earlier this year. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) on Tuesday accused the Mayor Rahm Emanuel-chaired Public Building Commission of “going backwards” on the ballyhooed plan to build a $60 million selective-enrollment high school on the Near North Side that was to be named after President Barack Obama.

Burnett aired his frustration one day after Terri Haymaker, the commission’s chief planning officer, told area residents four sites are still under consideration for the showcase high school, including the Stanton Park site that Emanuel favored before it ran into a buzzsaw of community opposition.

Burnett and his constituents favor a vacant riverfront parcel at Division and Kingsbury that’s privately owned. It would be more costly because the city would have to acquire it.

The alderman had hoped the community meeting held Monday night would be the final step toward ratifying that choice and moving forward with a project that Emanuel announced with great fanfare more than a year ago.

Instead, residents were told that four sites were still in the running and that it will be months before “due diligence” is done on all of them.

The four finalists are Stanton Park; a former Cabrini Green site that includes Durso Playlot Park; a parcel at Larrabee and Clybourn, and the riverfront site at Kingsbury and Division.

All but the riverfront site are publicly owned, either by the Chicago Park District, the Chicago Housing Authority or by both agencies.

“I thought everyone had pretty much chosen the site we chose,” Burnett said.

“We need to hurry up. Prices are getting more expensive,” he said. “We already know what site we want. The whole community wants that site. Any other sites are just going to prolong this thing” because they’re on CHA property or park district land.

Carol Steele, president of the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council, confirmed that her group would sue if the project eats up any CHA-owned land or park space.

“We’re not negotiating no more CHA land away,” she said. “The CHA and the city is behind in replacing housing. Two parcels of the land is where housing is supposed to be built. We’re not giving up on that. We’ll fight it.”

Lauren Moltz, acting president of Friends of the Parks, said: “We strongly urge the Public Building Commission, the Mayor and CPS to select a site that does not use parkland,” but she stopped short of a lawsuit.

Burnett acknowledged that the $60 million tax-increment financing budget is finite, but he said the riverfront site is the only choice.

“It may cost more because it’s close to the river. But it actually may come out to be cheaper,” Burnett said. “We won’t have to spend as much money fighting a lawsuit. If you insist on evaluating the three other sites, you’re just wasting time and money.”

Public Building Commission spokeswoman Molly Sullivan described a protracted process that, at best, could culminate in the opening of Chicago’s 11th selective-enrollment high school at the end of 2018.

“Every site poses unique challenges and opportunities,” Sullivan said. “We have to do our due diligence. TIF funds have been identified as the funding source, but total project costs cannot be determined until the site studies are completed and any land-acquisition costs are factored in.”

CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey did not respond to questions about the district’s input on the sites, the project’s current budget and why the district is going ahead with the project when it can’t say how it’s going to fund the schools it currently has.

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