A proposal to sell 19 city-owned parcels of vacant land for $1 to the University of Chicago advanced out the Council’s Housing and Real Estate Committee yesterday. But the plan wasn’t without controversy with a handful of aldermen questioning the “fairness” of the sale.
The land, approximately 153,200-square-feet, is appraised at $755,000 (approximately $4.93 per square foot). Under a public-private partnership with the city, the University would spend $27.5 million to build a new three-story charter school and athletic field.
The new school building will serve the university’s existing Woodlawn Charter School (UCCS-Woodlawn), which has an enrollment of about 650 students in grades six through twelve. UCCS-Woodlawn, run by the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, is currently leasing space from CPS at the old Woodworth Elementary school.
The sale got significant pushback from Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10), the only alderman on the Council who is also a member of Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).
“I have a big problem with this because this is a charter school network. We all know what is happening with CPS. We’re going to give a charter school network 19 parcels for a dollar when CPS is broke makes no sense to me, ”she said, pressing officials from CPS, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and the University of Chicago to explain the price.
The university made a bid to CPS in the summer of 2014 to purchase the Woodworth Elementary School building, according to Liza Balistreri, Director of Real Estate for the Board of Education. The board rejected their offer because the university’s $100,000 bid fell far short of Woodworth’s appraised value, which was somewhere between $2 and 2.6 million.
But since the university had planned to spend millions on rehabbing that school–almost as much as they planned to spend on a new campus–the city worked out a “public-private partnership” with university to sell the adjacent vacant land so they could instead build a new school, according to Michelle Nolan, a project manager for DPD.
Garza was unimpressed. “I don’t have a problem with new schools. I have a problem with new charter schools.”
“When these schools are built, the neighborhood schools lose their kids and then CPS comes in, says they’re underutilized, and then they close them and give them to more charters,” she added.
Ald. Willie Cochran (20), whose South Side ward would benefit from the new campus, defended the project, touting UCCS-Woodlawn’s graduation and college acceptance rates, which he said are the second highest in the city. The network has a $40 million yearly budget. “This school has been doing a tremendous amount of work in improving education… $755,000 is worth the investment in my children, in my community.”
Sean Evans, CEO of the university’s charter school network, reminded aldermen that this land sale isn’t considered “charter school expansion,” because their school has been around since 2006. “We want to serve students on the South Side,” Evans explained, adding that all four of the network’s schools are located there. He says 99% of their student population is African American and 82% qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Committee Vice Chair Pat Dowell (3) asked Evans to detail investments the university has made in the city, which he eagerly obliged. The Urban Education Institute has an annual budget of about $40 million, where it spends money on the charter schools, it runs a consortium that provides data and research for all public schools in the city, teacher training programs, and IMPACT, he said.
Ald. Michael Scott, Jr. (24) praised one of the school’s recent graduates, whom he said he had the “pleasure of meeting” recently. And Ald. Cochran again reminded his colleagues that this school is what his community wants.
Still, there was reluctance.
“A number of us feel charters benefit from incentives, that’s an argument for a whole other day,” Ald. Raymond Lopez (15) noted. “I don’t think that I would consider U of C to be a cash-strapped non-for-profit institute. I would have just hoped that we would have been able to negotiate a better deal,” he said pointing to the rest of the agenda where land sales were priced in the thousands of dollars.
Englewood Alderman David Moore (17) wasn’t thrilled that the new school would increase its capacity by 100 students, saying, “So, you are pulling students from all of our communities.”
When it was eventually time to vote on the item, Moore and Garza (10) voted no.
Mt. Sinai Land Transfer
Another one dollar land sale advanced through committee with a lot less pushback: a proposal to sell 12 parcels in North Lawndale to Mt. Sinai Health System. The hospital would rehab the existing 7,800-square-foot, one-story building, an old Boys & Girls Club, into a child development center with eight classrooms, administrative offices, and an outdoor playground. The building has been vacant since 2007 and construction would cost $3.5 million.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the price tag,” said Ald. Lopez said.“I would like to see us do a little better, especially when we have to go back to our constituents and tell them that we did everything we could.”
Chairman Joe Moore (49) asked local alderman Michael Scott, Jr. (24) to defend the price tag.
Scott said Mt. Sinai is the neighborhood’s biggest employer and the investment they’ve put in the community goes a long way. Sarah Wilson with DPD said the city had problems securing a tenant for the property.
The facility will serve as the new home for the existing Gads Hill Center, a family resource provider that’s served low-income residents on the city’s southwest side since the late 1800s.
CTA Lease Renewal
One item on the agenda was held: an ordinance authorizing a lease renewal with the Chicago Transit Authority for use of vacant city-owned property at 5975 N. Pulaski Rd. in the 39th Ward, at the request of local Ald. Marge Laurino. At the last housing meeting, she expressed concern that CTA bus drivers were using the lot as a bathroom stop (the bus drivers put a porta potty there) and she was working on getting them to find another place to do their business.