UPTOWN — For 17 years, the urban arts youth development group Kuumba Lynx has offered programs in the rapidly deteriorating Clarendon Park Field House.
The casual visitor may not know the organization resides in the community center at 4501 N. Clarendon Ave. But those who've ventured up the stairs can hear the carefree joy of the young voices reverberating off the walls — sometimes in verse.
"This is a place where hundreds of youth have come in and out, have expressed themselves and been able to tap into who they are and feel free," said co-founder Jaquanda Villegas.
Earlier this month, 46th Ward Ald. James Cappleman announced that the field house, which in 2015 was named one of the "most threatened" historic buildings in the city, would "undergo an extensive renovation."
The work is expected to begin later this year and be completed by next summer.
Wednesday evening, Kuumba Lynx's poets, rappers, dancers, actresses, activists and other creatives attended the first public meeting on the project to ensure they had a seat at the community table.
"I think it's really important our voices are present in this renovation," said Villegas, who founded the arts program with two other women in 1996. "I think our kids deserve the best space to produce art, to communicate with each other [and] to build community. They do it anyway, but it would be nice if what they need is taken into consideration."
The renovations are being primarily financed from the Clarendon Montrose Tax Increment Financing District stemming from the developers of the former Maryville Academy and Cuneo Hospital sites. TIF districts capture all growth in the property tax base in a designated area for a set period of time, usually 20 years or more, and divert it into a special fund for projects designed to spur redevelopment and eradicate blight.
The community center will receive $4.6 million from the TIF, and the Chicago Park District will kick in another $1.5 million, bringing the total funds raised to about $6.1 million, Cappleman said.
"We really need $10 million to address all the code issues and to make it ADA-compliant," he said, referring to the American Disabilities Act. "It's still not enough, and that’s why I’m working with the Park District, and we’re finding other people to help contribute more money. We need that full $10 million."
While all the funds aren't available yet, "Our goal is to keep the integrity of this wonderful structure because it's beautiful and very historic," Cappleman said.
To ensure that, two-thirds of the available funds will be dedicated to repairing water leaks in the field house. The rest will be dedicated to improvements the community wants, he said.
"You have a voice. Make sure you got your top priorities. This is what makes Uptown great. All of us working together," Cappleman told about 50 attendees in the gym.
Attendees at Wednesday's meeting were given circle-shaped stickers on giant printouts of the building's floor plans allowing them to select rooms they would like to see renovated. Most of those dots ended up on the gymnasium, a multi-use room currently used by Kuumba Lynx as a performance space, and a dance room.
"I'm a dancer, so I want the dance room improved. It's decent. It just gets really hot," said 17-year-old Anais Scott.
The air conditioning unit in the room doesn't work so, to cool down, kids use several fans. The youngsters are forced to dance around the fans, turn the music louder over the din of the fans, and the fans take over most of the outlets, leaving no space for the dancers to charge their phones, she said.
The total estimated cost of $10 million comes from an assessment of the property taken in June 2016 prepared by AltusWorks.
The assessment basically says everything in the building needs to be brought up to code. But since only half of the funds are available, the Park District has "prioritized deficiencies" such as the leaky roof, said the Park District's senior project manager, Julie Smith.
"There’s brick without mortar that you can just pull out. So we’re fixing life safety issues. The sidewalks outside are pitched toward the building, so water is coming in under the doors," she said. "First of all, we’re fixing those items."
After those issues, the Park District will move toward mechanical issues, like fixing the air-handling unit. Then it's on to internal things damaged by water penetration. The first priority is the roof though, she reiterated.
"The roof is huge. You can see the water coming down the brick [in the gym.] The fitness rooms has it. There’s a lot of water penetration in the building. the No. 1 rule of architecture is keeping water out," said Smith.
For Kuumba Lynx, the leaks from the roof land on the heart of their programming — the stages they use for performances, Villegas said. When it leaks, the group has been forced to move its performances, she said.
She favors devoting money "toward the roof and completely fixing that because having to stop programming to adjust to flooded floors is a bit much."
Cappleman said he intends to make sure Kuumba Lynx is a part of the process and was excited to see the younger folks who use the facility at the meeting.
"I want to make sure they get their voices heard," he said.
But Kuumba Lynx's Villegas said the group has been trying to get the ball rolling on the project for years — to no avail. For the last two years, the group has sent a representative to the park's advisory council meeting and worked with Northwestern University to create and present plans, she said.
Since the group — which provides free programming for the Park District in exchange for free use of park space — hasn't been consulted on the project, reaction to the news of the renovations has been mixed, she said.
"We do have fears that we will lose this space. Most art partners don’t have as much space as we have, but I know that our numbers are on the higher end in terms of servicing the community. So we need the space," she said. "I think our biggest fear is that the space will get unreasonably cut down."
But if the money is there and their voices are heard, the group is excited, she said.
"We’ve already thought about this and do have plans. And we have wonderful input into what it should look like," she said.