SOUTH LOOP — Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday called razing the Whittier Elementary School field house "exactly the right thing to do" and predicted the community would ultimately embrace the new synthetic field, basketball court and playground that will replace it.
"I appreciate the emotional attachment people have to a building in that area, but it was unsafe," Emanuel said during a news conference at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for an expanded Jones College Prep. "It was rated as unsafe for kids."
Community leaders saved the field house with a sit-in three years ago, but an Aztec dance class was chased from the building Friday night to clear the way for its demolition Saturday. Chicago Public Schools carried out the tear down without a demolition permit, using an executive order instead.
Emanuel said Tuesday that things had changed from three years ago, and he was now offering the community something in exchange.
"To take it down is one thing," he said. "Building up a new field — an Astroturf field — a new basketball court and a new playground that is safe for kids is exactly the right thing to do for the families and the communities in and around Whittier.
"We're taking it down, and we're building something new to replace it," Emanuel added.
Ald. Danny Solis (25th) defended the demolition Monday as something that "had to happen."
But Whittier Parents Committee member Gema Gaete — who was a part of that sit-in — said Solis flip-flopped on his original promise to provide $350,000 in Tax Increment Finance dollars to keep the field house, known as La Casita, open.
Gaete also maintained that La Casita posed no immediate structural threat to anyone using it.
"We’re not denying it needed renovations, but they were saying the roof is going to cave in," she said. "CPS knew we had programming there, so why didn’t they ever communicate with us?"
In a statement issued Wednesday, Solis called the field house "extremely deteriorated."
"Out of an abundance of concern for the safety of the students and the Whittier community, the field house was demolished. CPS has committed to adding new state of the art basketball courts, an artificial turf field, and a new playlot for the students. I am committed to working with CPS and the Whittier community to continue improvements at Whittier," the statement said.
Emanuel compared the tear down to the flap over Brian Piccolo Elementary School, a West Side school that was occupied a year ago when it was placed in turnaround, only to see its test scores rise this past school year.
"I understand the emotions, but when all the news lights go off and all the cameras go running to pay attention to something else ... it was relevant to the lives of the children, and that is what counts," Emanuel said.