LINCOLN PARK — Construction of a controversial annex planned for Lincoln Elementary school has been halted until at least Friday following legal challenges claiming the project would harm the property values of nearby homes.
Construction had been scheduled to start last week on the $20 million project designed to alleviate overcrowding at the school at 615 W. Kemper Place.
Neighbors who filed the challenges, in a civil suit and before the city's Zoning Board of Appeals, claim that the annex would eliminate open space, reduce "light and air to surrounding properties," and cut the value of their homes.
The challenges, filed by Jay and Jane Armstrong, and Lynn Rosenberg, are the latest salvos in a fight against the annex, which has been at the center of controversy for months. Other opponents have argued that the annex will replace a 110-by-50 foot playlot that is used by the neighborhood, add traffic to the congested area and that it is unnecessary in light of the city's challenging financial situation.
Neighbors have also argued that the addition will change the character of the historic neighborhood and the school.
Supporters say more space is desperately needed in order to properly educate the enrolled children.
The plans for the addition to the school, which were unveiled in November, include building up to the lot line behind the school, which required a zoning adjustment. That adjustment was granted on July 1, which the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are now contesting before the city's Zoning Board of Appeals.
Molly Sullivan, deputy director of media and public information for the Public Building Commission, said the city will not proceed on the project until after the appeals board, which meets Aug. 15, makes a decision.
"We aren't starting anything," she said. "Everything is on hold."
If not for the legal challenges, it is likely the school's playlot would have been torn up and construction crews would now be readying the site for construction, Sullivan said.
Fence installation and excavation was scheduled to begin July 28 and continue though Aug. 8. According to the building schedule, the foundation was to have been completed by late September, with construction expected to start in November.
City officials have said they hope to have the 19-classroom annex, which will increase the school's capacity by 420 students, ready for the start of the 2015-2016 school year. Sullivan said it was too early to say if the legal challenges might delay completion.
In an interview, Jay Armstrong argued that the zoning variance granted earlier to the school was designed for garages and "a four-story annex is certainly not a garage."
"If I ask to build my house all the way to the alley, I can tell you that I would be turned down immediately," he said.
Armstrong believes the crowding situation at Lincoln could be remedied by sending some students to other schools.
“In private industry if I spent $20 million to take care of a problem that could be solved administratively, I would be fired," said Armstrong.
Lincoln's enrollment at the end of the school year was listed at 789, according to Chicago Public Schools. The ideal capacity for the school is listed by CPS at 630 students, but for the 2014-2015 the school, as it did for the 2013-2014, CPS will lease classroom space at DePaul University for Lincoln.
DePaul has said it will not lease space after this school year, making the question of how to deal with enrollment critical.
Not all parents are against the project.
Eric Gurry, a parent of two Lincoln school students, said those objecting to the project "are trying to take away education options for the entire community."
Gurry described the zoning variance to build the school up to the lot line "a small adjustment."
"The neighbors who are complaining, they are complaining about the very existence of the annex. They aren't really complaining about this particular zoning adjustment," he said.
Gurry called it "a real travesty" if "these folks trying to block the annex end up with a lot of kids without a place to go to school" after the DePaul leasing arrangement is up.
In a new element of the plan made known to parents just last month, Kemper Place would be shut down to traffic during the day so that the street could be used as a playground during the year of construction.
Eventually the playground will be moved to the rooftop of the annex while some play equipment will remain in a small lot on the ground level.
That plan, too, drew criticism from parents and neighbors of the school who say they were left out of the planning process.
"My objective is not to back door the annex construction, I think that’s done and dusted. My big concern now is my children’s safety and what they are now doing with this recess plan," said Peter Harrison, who lives on Kemper.
Harrison said he fears drivers will use the alley behind his home as a through street when Kemper is closed during the day.
"They need to go back to the drawing board, and for once in this whole process, include the community who are as impacted as the students," he said.
Armstrong is also listed as a plaintiff in a suit against the construction of a development on the grounds of the former Children's Memorial Hospital site in Lincoln Park.
Armstrong said the Children's Memorial lawsuit, which has delayed the sale of the property to developer McCaffery Interests, and the legal actions against building the school annex were a last resort.
"That's the only way I knew of reaching them," he said. "When you don't listen we have to get your attention."
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