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Bret Harte School to Unveil $1M New Playground, Drive Lane for Drop-Offs

By Sam Cholke | August 29, 2014 7:46am
 The Bret Harte playground got a $1 million makeover in preparation for the new school year.
Bret Harte Playground
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HYDE PARK — Bret Harte Elementary School will welcome students back Friday with more than $1 million in improvements to the playground.

Crews were hanging basketball nets and installing gates on Thursday afternoon, the final touches on the playground renovation redone grounds in preparation for an ice cream social at 1:30 p.m. on Friday.

“The kids are going to be ecstatic,” said Shenethe Parks, principal of the school at 1556 E. 56th St.

The schoolyard didn’t survive the last school year. When school let out on June 16, caution tape clung to poles of the playground. The school’s sign was knocked down and its fence crumpled by a car crash.

“We went a while without a slide because there was hole in it,” Parks said. “Over time, it had become a hazard.”

Glancing out of her office window on Thursday, Parks looked over a completely transformed playground.

The new playground replaced the shabby old one, mirrored on the opposite end of the grounds by a new playground for the school’s new eighth grade class. The teachers’ parking lot doubled in size and was redone with permeable paving stones.

Most dramatically, a new drive lane winds around the school from Cornell Avenue to 56th Street, for the first time keeping parents and school buses from elbowing for space as kids try to cross the busy 56th Street and Stony Island Avenue intersection in front of the school.

“The idea was to create a drive aisle,” said Peter Cassel, director of community development for MAC Properties, which bankrolled the $1 million improvements at the school.

Cassel said the improvements are part of the commitment the company made to improve Hyde Park schools when it began buying property in the neighborhood in 2006.

MAC Properties owns more than 75 historic buildings in Hyde Park and Kenwood, and one of the first new construction projects it proposed was the 26-story Solstice on the Park condo tower, planned as Bret Harte’s new neighbor to the east.

The project has been stalled since the crash of the real estate market in late 2007, but would have required the alley be rerouted around Bret Harte.

“It means we’re investing in a way that means we’re going to build a great building some day,” Cassel said, stopping short of saying the project was again moving forward.

Cassel said the investment meant making huge changes to Bret Harte and getting multiple city departments, utility providers and construction crews to come together perfectly to finish all work during the short 10-week window while school was out.

“This is one of the more complex ones,” said Karl Braun, the project manager for McHugh Construction. “The entire site got chopped up into a puzzle.”

He said the project required 300 loads of dirt to be trucked out and 300 truckloads of stone be brought into a part of the neighborhood where one car parked in the wrong spot could block access to the entire site.

On Thursday, one of the biggest tasks for crews was making sure the new basketball nets were threaded on correctly. Braun said he was confident they were going to hit their deadline, with just cleanup work to be done before the ice cream social.

Students will get their first chance to try out the climbing walls and test the safety of the new cushioned ground mats at the ice cream social Friday.

They may get some company as a rumor swirled that Mayor Rahm Emanuel would be stopping by for a scoop.

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