The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

Riverfront Site Likely for Former Obama College Prep, Alderman Says

By Paul Biasco | January 27, 2015 8:47am
 A meeting of the Near North Unity Program expected to hear from the Public Building Comission regarding proposed sites for the selective enrollment high school Monday night and were furious when the officials canceled at the last minute.
Near North Unity Program
View Full Caption

NEAR NORTH — The proposed school formerly known as Barack Obama College Preparatory High School will likely be built on a private piece of riverfront land near Division and Halsted streets, 27th Ward Ald. Walter Burnett told a neighborhood group Monday night.

"They figure that that's the site that everybody wants to choose, but the thing is, they don't want to just do it" without asking the community, Burnett said. "They want to give everyone some input. They want to give you the opportunity to say what you like and what you don't like."

Burnett said the project likely would mean a higher price tag and would require the city to obtain the land through eminent domain if that location is chosen.

The location was deemed a solid choice by the Near North Working Group, a community organization set up to help redevelop the former Cabrini-Green public housing development.

Paul Biasco says the school's development process has been bumpy:

The alderman said he had been meeting with the mayor's staff, the building commission, Board of Education and Chicago Park District on the project.

However, on Monday night at a community meeting, a group of Near North residents, expecting to hear of plans for the selective-enrollment high school, were outraged when members of the Public Building Commission canceled their appearance at the last minute.

Three members of the Public Building Commission's team, including executive director Erin Lavin Cabonargi, were set to speak on proposed sites for the selective-enrollment school.

At 2:45 p.m., the building commission's spokeswoman, Molly Sullivan, told the Near North Unity Program that Cabonargi was having flight troubles due to the East Coast's storm.

The head of the Near North Unity Program and executive pastor at LaSalle Street Church, Randall Blakey, told the board that he expected someone to show up at that 6 p.m. meeting. Cabonargi was supposed to be joined by the project manager, Corey McClenahan, and Terri Haymaker, chief planning officer.

For the city officials not to show up at the meeting was "disrespectful, dismissive and very unacceptable," Blakey said.

"The community comes first and deserves better," Blakey said. "To cancel something like this because one person is on the East Coast, to me, is rather unfavorable."

The Near North Unity Program was formed in 2010 to strengthen the rapidly changing and diverse community of longtime residents and new home buyers.

Monday's meeting had been in the works for a month and a half and would have been the first time the new location of the controversial high school was discussed in that community forum since the original plan was announced last April.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's original plan was to build Obama Prep in the middle of Stanton Park, a decision that angered many in the neighborhood who did not want to give up park land.

in April, the city acknowledged the Obama Prep proposal had been developed under a "communication gap" and that residents of the area, including Burnett, were left out of the planning. That apology came from Megan Harte, an Emanuel aide, at a monthly Near North Unity Program meeting.

Emanuel dropped the plan to put the $60 million showcase school in the park but vowed to build it elsewhere. He also dropped the Obama name because of a Chicago Public Schools policy that says schools can only be named after dead people.

On Monday night, Burnett fielded questions from a frustrated audience of about 50 community members and said the Public Building Commission had whittled its proposal to three sites.

Original proposal in Stanton Park

"It's disheartening that [the Public Building Commission] couldn't send someone here tonight," Burnett said. "I think that's terrible. They could have sent somebody, even if they sent a clerk ..."

Burnett, though, was positive about the progress that's been made and said the private plot of land would not face the same threats of lawsuits that projects such as the proposed Obama Library and Lucas Museum have.

The alderman ruled out another option that many neighborhood residents considered the best spot for the school, the former Near North High School, 1450 N. Larrabee St.

Burnett said both he and city officials agreed that would have been the best site, but 9.8 acres of the school land was part of a land swap in March and is now CHA property.

"We put it with CHA because that was the plan from the beginning, for it to go to CHA," Burnett said. "It was a swap, but that was always the plan for a long time."

Some residents called for a new land swap, which would allow the school to be built on the former Near North High School site.

Judy Jones, president of the Stanton Park Advisory Council, said she and a group including Friends of the Parks President Cassandra Francis surveyed the neighborhood on foot and found numerous vacant lots or lots for sale that would work in a swap for CHA.

"It's been done before," Jones said. "Anything can be done."

The new school will be paid for with Tax Increment Financing funds from the Near North TIF district and is expected to house 1,200 students.

Thirty percent of the study body would come from a neighborhood boundary similar to the setup at Skinner West Elementary in the West Loop.

Burnett said he views the school as a major cog in the revitalization of the Near North and former Cabrini-Green area.

"To get people to buy in a mixed-income community you need amenities, and one of the best amenities that brings people to a community is a good school," he said.

Members of the Near North Unity Program expect to put together a special meeting with the Public Building Commission before the group's February monthly meeting.

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: