UPTOWN — Visions of Graeme Stewart Elementary School's rebirth in Uptown include a youth-focused community center or a theater. Maybe retail space, affordable housing, or high-end condominiums. Maybe all of the above.
However, many ambitious development ideas, dampened by market realities, never see the light of day, cautioned Marisa Novara, director of the Metropolitan Planning Council's housing and community development initiatives.
Adeshina Emmanuel discusses potential plans for the school on DNAinfo Radio:
Her group will partner with the office of Ald. James Cappleman (46th) for a series of three development workshops to help Uptowners devise plausible proposals for reusing the shuttered school at 4525 N. Kenmore Ave.
Still, the future of Stewart, closed last year as part of a district effort to reduce expenses, presents a unique opportunity to dream big. And community groups and residents have already been brainstorming ahead of the first development session, to be held Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Clarendon Park Community Center, 4501 N. Clarendon Ave.
Uptown United, Uptown's economic development organization, favors a mixed-use residential development that strengthens Uptown's entertainment district with a focus on arts and entertainment, perhaps through the use of the school's auditorium.
Uptown resident P.C. Gooden-Smiley is intrigued by the idea of a residential condo development. She also supports Stewart becoming a "cultural center" with art classes for kids and adults that could also house several small theater troupes.
Community organizing group ONE Northside says that more than 800 surveys from Uptown residents indicated a strong preference toward creating affordable housing, and a space for non-profits and community groups.
Uptown resident Georgina Sandifer said she doesn't want Stewart "to go to the highest bidder," nor the most politically connected developer. And she's wary of entertainment district ideas for the site that would not be a direct benefit to area children. It is the children, she said, who should gain the most given the loss of a school.
Sandifer wants the reuse of Stewart to address the community's need for "safe spaces for young people to develop skills," and to get homework help, tutoring and guidance.
"I know it sounds like I'm in a dream world — but that's what I'd like to see," she said.
Uptown-based activist group Northside Action 4 Justice said in an email to members Tuesday, "We need youth and human services, education programs, and other community assets. We do not need more luxury housing or privatization" in the Stewart building.
The need citywide "to focus new development around transit" is one of the Metropolitan Planning Council's chief aims with the workshops, Novara said. The pending $203 million rehab of the Wilson Red Line station is one reason her group is interested in Uptown.
Stewart, one of 50 schools closed by the school district last year, sits just southeast of the station, in a tax increment finance district. Eligible for landmark status, the 90,400-square-foot building is attractive for development, Novara said.
The same has been noted by preservationists and architects.
The handsome brick and limestone structure, capped with a hipped green roof, opened in 1907 and was designed by noted Chicago Prarie School architect Dwight Perkins.
Novara said that in Uptown "the market’s moving there, development will happen" with or without Uptowners voicing their opinions.
"In some cases the market may take care of it," she said. "But it may not do it in a way that includes any affordability," in terms of housing for low-income residents.
While Stewart has dominated much of the conversation, the workshops will also address what happens to a lot that will open up on Wilson Avenue west of the Wilson Red Line Station after the station's planned $203 million makeover.
The Board of Education will ultimately sign off on any sale of shuttered schools.
For more information about the development workshops, also scheduled for May 12 and 29, click here.
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