Warehouse upstages plans for new high school in Austin

Community hopes of transforming the 30-acre site of  a former Brach's candy factory into a state-of-the-art high school were dashed yesterday as city council members voted to help its owner convert it to warehouse space instead.

"Why can't kids in Austin have the type of schools and extracurricular components that kids in Naperville have?"
pleaded Rev. Ira Acree before a city committee hearing Tuesday.

It's a sentiment that 28th Ward Alderman Ed Smith says he shares.

But the alderman, who prides himself on supporting social services and education, has found himself at odds with a coalition of activists promoting an expansive vision of turning the  property into a first-rate high school.

Smith said he had made a commitment to the developers before the school proposal was presented, and the developers do not want to sell.

"That site was taken off the table at my first meeting with the community," said Smith. "I never go back on my word, once I've made a commitment."

City council members voted Wednesday to approve Smith's request for $10.6 million in tax-increment financing proceeds to help the owner of the site proceed with plans to convert the property into warehouse space.

ML Realty Partners, an Illinois-based developer, bought the property at 401 N. Cicero Ave. in January. It plans to invest $33 million to redevelop the shuttered plant into a 520,000 square-foot warehouse and distribution center for lease.

A coalition of community groups calling itself the Austin Education Network teamed up with the Westside Health Authority led by president and CEO Jackie Reed, to push for the high school.

With nearly 118,000 residents, Austin is the city's largest neighborhood. But since Austin High School closed in 2006, students have been attending a fraying patchwork of smaller schools, according to proponents of the high school project.

"It's a disgrace that we don't have a high school that can adequately serve the needs of our youth," Acree said.

The community groups had plans for a sprawling college preparatory facility with athletic fields, a swimming pool and a curriculum built around arts, academics and training in the trades.

They brought over a hundred protesters to a marathon meeting of the city's finance committee in June to make an impassioned plea. Dozens more showed up to testify when the meeting was reconvened on Tuesday.

But the property's industrial zoning designation was also a barrier for school proponents, since it does not allow development of a school.

Smith estimates that 175 to 200 badly needed jobs will be provided by the new facility.

The irony, Smith said, is that the site was vacant and an  "eyesore" for years before becoming the focus of competing proposals.

"That site sat there for years and nobody said a word," he lamented.

Smith has proposed two other nearby sites for a high school.

Reed, however, said a smaller site won't accommodate the kind of campus that backers have in mind.

"It's the only site in our community for a school," said Reed.
"We took it back to the people (after the meeting with Smith) and they told us they didn't want to settle for some little-bitty piece of land or some little vision."

In addition, Reed said, most of the proposed alternative locations would require children who get off the bus line to walk several blocks.

"We want kids to be able to get off the bus lines, get off the El, and walk straight into the school," said Reed.

Reed says the school project has a private donor who will reimburse the owners for any improvements made on the property, then purchase the land and donate it to CPS.

But Smith said the site could be vacant for years waiting for the $105 million that CPS Chief Arnie Duncan says would be needed to build a new school.

Reed says there are no guarantees that the city's commitment will result in jobs.

"This is a lot of money, for such a small return," she said.
"We are against misusing this kind of tool - the TIF dollars - for a developer to come in," she said.

"We're not talking about permanent jobs, we're not talking about high-end jobs, we're not talking about career moves."

Smith pledged at the council meeting Wednesday to continue to work to find a site for a new Austin High School.

"I am committed to building a school in Austin," said Smith. "Whomever I can work with, whatever I can do to build a school in Austin, I want us to do."

But at the committee meeting on Tuesday, Reed said advocates weren't giving up on the Brach's site.

"That Brach's site is the best land in our neighborhood," said Reed. "We will fight for it, we will continue to fight for it."

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