David Magill, the Director of the Laboratory Schoools, announced to his faculty and staff last Tuesday that the University of Chicago and the Laboratory Schools were exploring the possibility of using the Doctors Hospital site at 58th and Stony Island Avenue to build an Early Childhood Center that would service Grades Nursery through 2. (The existing building would be demolished.)
The Laboratory Schools launched its ambitious Lab+ Campaign in July of 2007, to raise capital "to bring new resources to every aspect of the Lab experience," including major building renovations and expansions. Their architects (Valerio Dewalt Train Associates and FGM Architects) have been struggling in the last year to fit a new Art and Music wing and the Early Childhood Center (ECC) on the existing school campus without sacrificing too much green space...and having a little trouble doing it.
Meanwhile the University has been scratching its head about what to do with the Doctors Hospital property, which has become even more of a decrepit white elephant in the 14 months since the residents of the 39th Precinct voted their precinct dry to prevent the construction of a much-needed hotel. (The vote was 255 to 235, showing how little it takes to keep this neighborhood down.)
One apparent solution to everyone's problems is to demolish Doctors Hospital and build the new ECC in its place. The University unloads the space in a way that neighbors couldn't possibly object to, and the Lab Schools gets a state-of-the-art, possibly LEEDS-certified, custom-made facility without cramming it on the existing campus.
When enrollment peaks at the Lab Schools, Mr. Magill says there will be 2,050 students in grades N - 12. According to him, no other independent school has as many students per acre, even if the ECC is ultimately built on Stony Island. Moving grades N - 2 to the space offered on the Doctors Hospital site would allow the school to "fully actualize program possibilities." For instance, the new site could potentially satisfy a dream of the N - 2 teachers to have a fluid connection between outdoor and indoor curricula, and it would reduce congestion along 59th Street, allowing for a safer drop-off and pick-up routine on both campuses. The conceptual plans for the building (there are no architectural renderings yet) include contiguous outdoor-indoor spaces for each classroom, its own physical education facilities, and its own library.
According to Steven Kloehn, Associate VP for News and Public Affairs, this proposal is exploratory only, and has not yet been approved by the Trustees. In cooperation with the alderman, the University would like to start a conversation with the community about the proposed use of the site, with the goal of uncovering what issues the community might want the University to attend to as the plan is refined. Ann Marie Lipinski, VP for Civic Engagement, met in December with a discussion group of 12 - 15 people with particular interest in the Doctors Hospital site (neighbors and at least one preservationist with architect credentials). There will also be a public meeting in the coming weeks to elicit feedback from the larger community. Mr. Kloehn says the goal of the meetings is to get the word out and to build consensus before going forward.
At some point there might also have to be two meetings held by the City -- one to announce the amended initial use, and possibly another to notify residents that a building designated with "orange" status in the Chicago Landmark Historic Resources Survey has been slated for demolition (an orange designation requires an automatic 90-day hold on any demolition plans).
So, suppose the University does build "community consensus" around this plan with its public meetings, which I assume it will? Is the proposal a good idea for the Lab Schools? That's the discussion that interests me the most. I have early misgivings (based on my educational philosophy and my family's experience) about breaking the Lab Schools campus into two pieces if there's any way in the world to make it fit on one. Yes, the University is eager to find a non-controversial use for its sad white elephant. Yes, the Lab Schools needs to expand. As a Lab alum and current Lab parent, I hope we won't leap to the "easy" solution without carefully thinking through the ramifications such a decision would have on the unique character of the school.