CHA board approves leasing public housing land to CPS for new Near South Side high school

The plan is contingent on the school system receiving approval from the Board of Education for its $70 million share of the new high school.

SHARE CHA board approves leasing public housing land to CPS for new Near South Side high school
A vacant lot at West 24th Street and South State Street in the South Loop.

A vacant lot at 24th and State streets in the South Loop — part of the former Harold L. Ickes Homes — is the proposed site for a new CPS high school.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago housing officials have approved the lease of public housing land to Chicago Public Schools, taking the next step toward the city’s vision of a new, $120 million Near South Side high school.

Facing protests by neighbors and housing advocates, the Chicago Housing Authority’s board of commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to pursue a controversial deal with CPS at 24th and State streets, the site of the former Harold L. Ickes Homes, which the CHA began shutting down in 2007 amid promises of new public housing.

The vote allows the CHA to submit applications to the federal government to lease the land for school construction and receive from CPS a couple of vacant parcels across the street. The resolution calls for “resident and community engagement” before those steps are taken — but officials will not need to seek further approval before proceeding with the lease for up to 99 years.

The former public housing complex was supposed to be redeveloped into mixed-income housing and retail stores. About a quarter of the nearly 900 planned units are complete — 58 of them public housing units, 26 affordable units and 112 at market rate — on the northern half of the land. The southern half would be leased to CPS.

The plan has faced opposition on two fronts: those who believe the city is breaking promises to Black residents by building a school rather than promised housing, and those who fear a new school in a shrinking district will hurt nearby under-enrolled majority Black schools.

Housing advocates protested the proposal Monday, accusing the city of failing to properly engage the community — much less take their input into consideration.

“This has been a problem with the city of Chicago,” Roderick Wilson, executive director of the community organization Lugenia Burns Hope Center, said Monday. “We thought we were going to get something different when we got Lori Lightfoot, but we got the same playbook.

“Ultimately, what CHA is doing is contributing to the gentrification of our community and contributing to the displacement of Black people.”

Despite protests, housing authority CEO Tracey Scott said she had heard favorable reviews from CHA residents who want a new school.

Scott told the agency’s board that CPS initially asked to purchase the land from CHA, but that a lease would allow officials to adjust their plans and build the rest of the public housing on the northern half of the former Ickes site, creating a denser housing complex than originally planned.

“We can still do what we need to do with housing on the parcel and still ultimately fit a school,” she said. “We can still put our housing on the Ickes site.”

In exchange for the 1.7 acres of land at 24th and State, the CHA would receive 2 acres down the street on Wabash Avenue in what would effectively be a land swap with CPS.

CHA chief development officer Ann McKenzie said the Wabash land is “pretty expensive” and predicted the Wabash site could be used for the market rate units. While the CHA is saying it can still build all the public housing units, it’s not clear if the affordable and market rate units will all fit. It’s also unclear whether CPS has secured that land to be traded.

Etta Davis, a CHA resident and vice president of the local advisory council in the Dearborn Homes, told the board at Tuesday’s meeting that she had been “appalled” by the swap but then glad to hear there was a plan to return the public housing units to the Ickes site. But she questioned the agency’s “nerve to take a vote today when you’re sending out letters in our neighborhoods that you want us to come out to a meeting to get our opinion.

“Sometimes, you treat us like second-class citizens, like we’re dumb and don’t know what’s going on,” she said.

CHA officials said the plan is contingent on CPS receiving approval from the Board of Education for its $70 million share of the new high school — a step that looked uncertain a month ago. District CEO Pedro Martinez yanked the plan hours before the school board was set to vote after some board members voiced skepticism, citing concerns about the project’s impact on nearby under-enrolled schools and the area housing community’s protests.

One of the school board members who wasn’t convinced by the city’s plan, Dwayne Truss, has since been forced off the board and replaced with former Ald. Michael Scott, an ally of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

McKenzie said “the idea would be that [CPS approval] would be done by the end of the year.”

The new high school would serve the South Loop, Chinatown and Bridgeport communities, with the Asian American population in the area particularly hopeful for a school that would address families’ language and immigration needs.

But even Chinatown advocates, among the strongest in favor of a new school, have been tepid about the 24th and State site because they support the rebuilding of public housing there.

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