The building that used to be Bontemps Elementary School is now a crumbling ruin– granite walls chipped away, interior stripped of pipes and wiring, dusty plywood sheets bolted over most of the windows.
And when Asiaha Butler looks at it, she couldn’t be more excited.
“I’m thinking this back part could be like a little rest stop area, where people riding their bikes up on the trail can come down and learn about the community,” Butler says, describing a dream as she sweeps her hand toward a thicket of woods growing over the property boundary. “We also see a lot of opportunity for this to be a kind of urban agriculture education center, for farmers or for tourists—if you want to start an urban farm, you can come here and learn the basics.”
As president of the Residents Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE), Butler has spent almost two years leading conversations to get somebody—anybody—to set up shop in this building. Bontemps is one of six shuttered elementary schools in Englewood that are still empty since the district closed a total of 49 schools across the city. Englewood was hardest hit.
The ongoing movement to repurpose these buildings crawled forward in early March when the district announced the release of a Request-for-Proposals (RFP) for potential developers to look at three of the 49: Near North Elementary, Duprey Elementary in Humboldt Park, and Overton Elementary in Bronzeville.
But for the people living nearby, the announcement is a reminder that 21 months after the closings, almost all the buildings are still empty and the difficult task of repurposing them is moving at a snail’s pace. The creation of more vacant buildings in already-distressed communities was one of the major concerns raised by the opponents of closings.
A quick recap: Of 42 buildings left vacant, CPS immediately found new uses for four. Another two are occupied through temporary leases that expire at the end of 2015. Two were sold in 2014 through a public bidding process. That leaves 34 empty buildings—and 33 for which the district has no long-term plans. Rough winter weather and vandalism have made the buildings even more difficult to repurpose.
“Oh my gosh, that’s brutal. [CPS’] fiscal deficit has got to be a reason for that, but wow,” says state Sen. Cynthia Soto (D-West Town), who is chair of the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force, a group created by the state legislature that pressured Chicago early on to craft a swift repurposing plan. “I’ll tell you, I’d personally be afraid to live around any of those schools, with crime in the city the way it is.”
In fact, property crimes have gone up since the closings. A Catalyst Chicago analysis of Chicago Police Department data found that between June 2013 and January 2015, 151 property crimes were reported at the campuses of former schools, compared to 130 during the 2012-2013 school year immediately prior to the closings. The actual number of vandalism incidents and other property crimes is likely higher, as most such incidents go unreported to police. (Violent crimes declined somewhat, from 241 incidents to 191, during the same time periods.)
The damage is especially severe at Bontemps, which Butler says city officials called “one giant crime scene.” When Butler asked to lead community members on a tour of the interior, the way she had for several other schools in the area, she was told the halls had become too hazardous, even for prospective developers, to venture through.
“All copper pipes stolen and holes in the building”
From the time of the closings, CPS officials made guarantees that they’d keep the vacant buildings secure and intact. Spokesman Michael Passman said in an email that “District engineers perform weekly checks at closed school buildings to address concerns, and we are proactive in sending a roving security crew to monitor buildings.”
But in some cases, the pervasiveness of crime made proactive security impossible. The situation got so bad at the former Laura Ward Elementary School in Garfield Park that a community group had to step in to bring the problem to the district’s attention.
“Ward was so openly accessible, we got footage of people going in and out of building to get equipment,” says Cecile Carroll, co-director of Blocks Together and a member of the facilities task force.
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Eventually, according to a Sept. 1, 2013 police report, officers discovered that the building “was no longer secure due to a broken window and broken padlock.” Police invited a CPS security official to walk through the school to identify what had been stolen, but, according to the report, he “could not determine if any items were missing, due to the crime scene being contaminated and the school being in disarray.”
“We worked to get it secured, and we learned that the condition was so severe that it would take a special team to get it back in decent shape,” Carroll says.
The report says officials “secured the building best to their ability.” But only six weeks later, a nearby resident filed another police complaint reporting “all copper pipes stolen and holes in the building.” That was three months after the closings; 18 months have elapsed since then. The district has yet to announce a repurposing plan for Ward.
Other schools suffered similar damage, with looters leaving little behind.
A Nov. 29, 2014 police report details a witness observing a group of young men climbing out of a window at the former Pope Elementary School in North Lawndale, hefting a “stainless steel commercial sink” and loading it into a Jeep. Of the nearby Henson Elementary, also in North Lawndale, an Illinois Facilities Fund official told residents at a July 2014 community meeting that the building had been “severely vandalized” and “stripped of its copper and wiring.”
The two Chicago winters since the closings have taken a toll, just as vandalism has. When Butler was invited to tour the insides of the closed Yale and Wentworth schools, also in Englewood, she saw first-hand the impact of freezing temperatures.
“There were busted pipes everywhere, the floors were buckled in a lot of the hallways, the walls were damaged,” Butler says. “It was tough because you’re trying to be objective, like looking at it from a real estate perspective and imagining what the space could be. But that really struck an emotional cord.”
Instead of central heating, large portable space heaters were scattered throughout the building, blowing hot air.
How Kansas City tackled repurposing
Butler and other members of RAGE turned their attention to the repurposing process as soon as the closings were announced. She quickly learned that the fight would be a long one.
Under pressure from the facilities task force, Mayor Rahm Emanuel assembled a committee in late 2013 to lay out a repurposing plan for vacant schools. In February 2014, the committee published a 42-page report detailing a three-step process in which every property would be catalogued and either re-used by the city or brought to market for sale to developers.
The report suggested that every property enter the bidding process “as quickly as possible in 2014” after a thorough collection of community input.
Other cities across the Midwest had learned the importance of bringing closed schools to market as quickly as possible.
“It’s a major undertaking to find uses for so many buildings, and it takes developers a long time to pull their wheels together,” says Shannon Jaax, the director of the Kansas City Public Schools Repurposing Initiative. Jaax was hired in January 2011 to jump-start the repurposing of that city’s 30 vacant schools, 21 of which had been shuttered the previous summer. “But when it comes to real estate, time is money. And I understand you don’t want to rush through the process, but I guarantee we could have sold at least a few more sites if we had started just a couple months earlier.”
By March 2012, the Kansas City school district had issued RFPs for all but four of its vacant properties. Meanwhile, in Chicago, RFPs have so far been issued for five buildings out of 42. Two of the five have been sold.
Jaax says Kansas City’s success is owed to a group of experts and stakeholders the city brought together in early 2011 to draw up a case-by-case evaluation of each school’s repurposing potential. The group of architects, historic preservationists and real estate developers met with community organizations and later published a report that sketched out the challenges and opportunities of each vacant building.
Emanuel’s advisory committee had a similar goal. Their report suggested that CPS convene an “advisory review and evaluation committee” to compile “physical and financial assessments on the conditions of each of the buildings.” But so far, no such body exists, and no such assessments have been taken.
Asked why this committee was never formed, Passman replied that the district “intends to engage an advisory review and evaluation committee to help identify next steps for the remaining facilities. The District will form this committee after the remaining facilities are identified so that it can engage individuals who are highly knowledgeable about the communities in which properties remain.”
Left to aldermen
Some blame the repurposing delays on a crucial point of the report: The community input process, the first step toward drawing up new uses for the school, was left up to each building’s respective alderman. As a result, public meetings have only been scheduled in a handful of areas.
“CPS punted the ball on this to the City Council, and by that time campaign mode was already in full swing, and they didn’t want to ruffle any feathers before the [Feb. 24, 2015] municipal elections,” Carroll says. “So almost immediately it seemed pretty clear that nothing was going to move until after the elections, because any controversy around the schools might impact their campaigns.”
In Englewood, Butler says, the neighborhood’s aldermen ended up being more barriers than facilitators.
“We started an Englewood repurposing committee, and from that we talked to residents, did some surveys and started throwing around ideas for what to do about these buildings,” Butler says. “Technically the aldermen are supposed to be doing public meetings, but none of them have been engaged in that process—there’s definitely been a sense of ‘wait until after the election.’ ”
Valerie Leonard, co-founder of the Lawndale Alliance, echoed Butler’s frustration.
“What’s so disappointing is that [the advisory committee report] was such a beautiful plan—a thoughtful plan—but it doesn’t do any good if it’s not implemented,” Leonard says. “Personally, I blame the mayor. He delegated people to come up with this plan, but he didn’t execute. Instead he’s just using the aldermen as a convenient distraction for a failed process.”
“They can’t just sit like this”
To be sure, aldermen haven’t been silent everywhere. Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr., whose 27th Ward includes Ward Elementary in Garfield Park, says a lack of public consensus combined with slumping property values to make repurposing a more painstaking ordeal.
“The problem [with Ward] is that it’s just not a very marketable building, and the community can’t come up with the resources to attract developers,” Burnett says. He convened several community meetings, at which residents voiced overwhelming support for turning the building into a community center. So when a developer offered to turn it into a care center for veterans, he says, his constituents wouldn’t have it.
Butler and her team in Englewood acknowledge that the process was never going to be easy. Entire swaths of neighborhoods like Englewood, North Lawndale and Garfield Park are already economic wastelands, areas most developers write off as toxic. It’s hard enough to sell a single-family home in these areas—finding a new tenant for a 40,000 square-foot, crumbling school is a Herculean task.
But for those living in the community, filling the empty buildings is a social imperative.
“Having six closed schools–that creates a huge hole in this neighborhood. Losing education is one thing, but taking away these institutions means a lot less economic activity,” says Anton Seals, a member of RAGE who’s worked closely with Butler on repurposing. “We need to think ahead of the game. We need to be thinking of our own ways to get these spaces filled. If we’re doing that, we don’t need some young white developer from Wilmette to pop up and fund us.”
When it comes to Bontemps, at least, Butler still can’t help but be optimistic. The city just designated the property as an Urban Agriculture District, and plans are progressing to create a nature trail right just behind the school. The school’s condition means developers will have to “bid blind” without seeing the inside of the building, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says Butler. A total gut-job can mean a blank canvas for developers, so every kind of project is on the table.
Today, it’s starting to snow, and Butler pulls her hat tighter over her head.
“I know there has to be something we can do to breathe life into this community. We have six of these, and I really want to see one of them—just one—transformed into something that can help us,” Butler says, scanning the school up and down. “They can’t just sit like this. People are broke, and they need to work. We just…we have to push this.”