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McPherson's Outdoor Campus Could Turn Mud Pit Into Next Giddings Plaza

By Patty Wetli | February 18, 2014 11:02am
 McPherson Outdoor Campus Revealed
McPherson Outdoor Campus Revealed
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LINCOLN SQUARE — The plan for McPherson Elementary's new outdoor campus may not include the waterslide and chocolate fountain suggested at an initial brainstorming meeting, but it does transform a parking lot and mud pit into usable green space for both the school and the neighborhood.

Landscape architects Brian Culliton and Tony Quinn presented their master concept last week after working since the beginning of the school year with McPherson's staff, students, parents and area residents to refine their proposal for the outdoor campus.

The main issue they were asked to address: A vast amount of shade prevents grass from growing in the school's existing play area, turning it into a mud pit following rains and a "dust bowl" in the summer, said Kim Silver, president of Friends of McPherson, the school's fundraising arm.

"We have 800 kids who can't play outside," she said.

To provide stormwater management, Culliton and Quinn proposed removing trees, letting in more sunlight and replacing an existing parking lot with green space. (Parking will move to an alley at the rear of the campus.)

They unveiled a main lawn for soccer, football or just plain goofing around; a running track along the site's perimeter; a playground, with separate equipment areas for younger and older children; a learning garden with raised beds; a basketball court; and a hopscotch/four square space.

Nearly every feature will be permeable to allow for water drainage.

"I like the learning garden, that's a good thing for the school," said Cyndi Brennan, a teacher's aide. "So much can be taught."

Kindergarten teacher Cassidy Wagner was pleased to see that the four square area had been placed outside her classroom windows as opposed to one of the more active features.

"We wanted it to be a little quieter," she said, and less of a distraction for her young charges.

Construction on the first phase of what's shaping up to be a three-phase project should start at the end of the school year, according to Bob Farster, chairman of McPherson's Local School Council.

"It could take a couple of years" to complete the campus "and we're prepared for that," said Silver.

Working with Openlands, state Sen. Heather Steans (D-7th) and a private donor, Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) has pulled together nearly $600,000 in funding toward the campus. Friends of McPherson has also applied for a $750,000 green infrastructure grant from the state of Illinois.

Given the school's location at Wolcott and Lawrence avenues, Pawar has identified the outdoor campus as a key component in his strategy to revitalize Lawrence Avenue, which already includes a Mariano's and LA Fitness set to open in March, as well as a slew of small businesses attracted to the corridor by these anchors.

While restaurants and retail are welcome additions, "we also need places for people to congregate," said Pawar.

Swapping out McPherson's parking lot on Lawrence, which presents a wall of cars to the community, will lend vibrancy to the area as well as provide a place for the community to gather, he said.

McPherson's campus will be open to users other than the school's students, with the potential to host events such as summer concerts or movies in the park, said Silver.

"We see this as an opportunity to invite neighbors in," she said. "This could be the next Giddings Plaza. It's going to be really cool."