Monday, February 15, 2010

The University and Lab School ECC Plan: Too Hasty?

Posted by Elizabeth Fama

On Thursday night (2/11/10), the University, Lab Schools, and Alderman Hairston hosted a community meeting about the possible use of the Doctors Hospital site (58th and Stony Island) as a location for a new Early Childhood Center (ECC) for the Lab Schools.

I counted roughly 140 people in attendance. Most people in the audience had positive comments; there were few hard questions. Most identified themselves as Lab parents or Stony Island neighbors. One preschool teacher vocally supported the proposed off-campus location, citing the nightmare-ish drop-off and pick-up she experiences daily at the Woodlawn Houses (two homes currently used for 4 nursery classes on Woodlawn near 58th).

After attending the meeting, and spending a few days digesting the presentation, there are three important questions that I believe go to the core of whether this is good decision-making versus hasty*, shortsighted decision-making:

1. Would the University have bought a 10 million dollar property (not counting the cost of demolishing a 1920s masonry hospital) just to build a Lab School ECC?

2. Is this the best use of the Doctors Hospital site from the University's and community's points of view?

3. Is it this the best place for the Lab Schools to build its ECC?

I think the answer to all three questions is unfortunately, "No."

1. I assume that the U of C bought this property with the hotel in mind. Now that the precinct has voted itself dry, the hotel developer is gone and the University is searching for a worthy cause for the property. The Lab Schools ECC is a handy cause, but not necessarily the right cause, and it wasn't chosen with any sort of Master Plan in mind for either the Lab School campus or the University campus. The University owns much of the land on Stony Island between 56th and 59th -- for example, one person at the meeting questioned whether they had more useful plans for the facilities building between 56th and 57th -- and it should be working toward a coherent vision for that entire stretch.

2. So what is the best use of the Doctors Hospital site? Stony Island is currently a relatively desolate street-scape, and it would be best for the community and for the University if it were enlivened with a steady flow of pedestrians and with some sort of night life. The ECC will be locked down tight after 5 PM, and it will be designed with little interest in foot traffic: the play spaces will be safely enclosed, away from the street, and the drop-off and pick-up car line will snake around the back of the building, with a slow lane and an express lane. Because the children it's intended for are in grades N through 2, very few families even in Hyde Park will feel they're within "walking distance" to school, particularly if they also have older children to drop-off on the main Lab School campus. The very rough schematic of the building already shows that it encourages a car (not pedestrian) culture. In my opinion, this "green" building will actually increase the number of families who drive to school.

Stony Island Early Childhood Center Study, including drop-off/pick-up car line.

I can think of two better alternatives for the site without even breaking a sweat:

a) build a large dorm complex geared especially toward 3rd- and 4th-year students. Dean John W. Boyer has written a detailed pamphlet discussing how the University should strive to be like Oxford, where students live all four years on campus. That will only happen if the housing options include something designed for the maturing lifestyles of upperclassmen, namely (from my informal poll of college students): suites made up of four single bedrooms surrounding a kitchen and bath. There could be an exercise room and a rec room on-site, plus common hang-out areas on each floor. There could be a cafe on the first floor that is open to the public (like the Booth cafeteria). Students would mill about the neighborhood on foot at all hours, and would help make the street safer.

My two U of C college students know many upperclassmen who like dorm living and feel a loyalty to their houses, but leave housing after their first or second year because the dorm lifestyle (eating in the residence halls and sleeping in the same room with a roommate) no longer fits their needs. On top of that, if you haven't been in them lately, Broadview, Blackstone, and Snell-Hitchcock are barely suitable for human habitation (the kitchen units in Blackstone are downright dangerous) and desperately need to be remodeled or closed.

b) build a faculty apartment complex (managed rentals or a mix of condos and rentals) with an exercise room, a rec room, indoor parking, and that same cafe on the first floor (open to the public, like the Booth cafeteria). This would draw young faculty back to the neighborhood from the north side, and allow faculty in lower-paying disciplines to afford to live on campus. It would also, incidentally, convert some commuting Lab families to walking families -- a hidden "green" benefit. Perhaps after several years of eating at the cafe, the neighbors would vote themselves "wet" again, just to be able to have a glass of wine there. (I can dream, can't I?)

3. The problem of space on the historic Lab School campus comes down to this: preserving the regulation-sized soccer field that's on Jackman Field. I'm not kidding. When you peel everything away, that's the reason they're proposing splitting the campus in two (either the regulation soccer field will have to go, or the tennis courts). Rather than list the pedagogical reasons that I believe a single campus is at the heart of Lab's teaching mission and should be a selling point for the school (as it is for Lab's feisty competitor, Francis Parker, which touts "Parker is proud to be the only independent school in Chicago where 14 different grades learn, share and grow under one roof."), I'll just offer the simple solution that solves the space problem: put the regulation soccer field -- which only high schoolers use -- across the Midway, near the South Dorm, the Harris School, and the future home of the Booth dorm (bonus: a soccer field would get plenty of use by the University and by Woodlawn neighbors). Then build an ECC that can house all of N through 2 (including the Woodlawn houses) on the historic Lab campus. Mind you, this still leaves room at Lab for a non-regulation soccer field for gym classes and practice, and leaves the tennis courts intact. Only the regulation soccer field would move. It would be relatively cheap to build a field and a shower/locker room facility across the Midway.
One study for an ECC placed on the historic campus, showing loss of tennis courts.

In sum: there are much better uses for the Doctors Hospital site, and there are ways to keep all of the grades at Lab in contiguous proximity to each other, to preserve the educational, progressive principles we should be holding dear for all grades, not just N through 2. Preserving one Lab campus would also help to decrease the driving culture surrounding the school and the University.

*Post-script for dedicated readers:

Some of the sense I got of the "hastiness" of the Stony ECC idea were logistical, practical issues. The University will obviously work on them, but they added to the proceedings a slight air of "rushing the plan through."

1. Alderman Hairston reassured the audience that the drop-off and pick-up car traffic associated with Bret Harte (a public school at the corner of 56th and Stony) would not interfere with that of the new ECC because a plan was in place to re-route Bret Harte traffic through an alley behind the planned Solstice development. When questioned about what would happen to that re-routing plan if the Solstice project did not get off the ground (a real possibility, because Antheus Capital has not sold enough units yet to break ground), Alderman Hairston said, "We'll have to find alternative funding somewhere." With the City's current finances, that seems thorny.

2. The Stony ECC would have 70 parking spaces for staff, and Mr. Magill said the staff will number about 75-80. However, with six classes for each grade, I count 72 teachers and assistant teachers just for the classrooms alone. Presumably there will also be teachers in art, music, and computers, staff for the library, tech support, facility services, a principal, a secretary, a security guard, and a nurse -- not to mention visitors spaces. On-site parking isn't important to me, but the numbers should add up in a presentation.

3. Much of the outdoor play spaces are in the form of enclosed courtyards. Even with a glass building, these spaces will be wet and muddy for much of the year. The pretty pictures didn't show the typical Midwestern "coatroom-mudrooms" that usually handle that kind of mess -- instead it looked like an idealized Palo Alto scene.

4. Many of the "best practices" schools that the architects studied were in warmer climates like Palo Alto, where the weather is ideal for contiguous indoor-outdoor space. The architect spent some time talking up the Google corporation's Wetlands preschool. A quick check shows that tuition at Wetlands is $57,000 per year (and no longer subsidized for employees). The student-teacher ratio is ridiculously low, with enrollment of only 72 kids in the Google Woodlands preschool, in Mountain View CA, for example.
Ideal classroom configuration, based on the Reggio Emilia Approach, which many of the Lab Schools preschool teachers have been hoping to adopt at Lab.

If you're interested in participating in an open (and I hope open-minded) discussion of the ECC plans on facebook, here's the link.


Richard Gill said...

What were the concerns raised by the Stony Island neighbors?

Elizabeth Fama said...

One young Vista Homes couple (with kids at the Lab Schools) merely expressed thanks that the process was more open than with the hotel, and said they supported the ECC on Stony. (I'm still mulling the claim of openness: something I can't place about the presentation made it feel like a "done deal.") Another, older VH couple had questions about parking, I think.

The only hard-hitting question (this one from a Lab parent) was about what sense it made to bus young children to and from the main school on a daily basis, rather than to bus high schoolers less frequently to a regulation soccer field. Another person asked whether there was a pedagogical reason to lump grades N - 2 together in a separate facility. As far as I remember, that was it for questions (other than things like, "Are you planning to have bike racks?"). I'm still scratching my head over why there aren't more vocal questions and concerns about this project. I think it's because if a person doesn't ask the questions I posed in the post (is this the best use for the DH site, and is this the best place for the ECC?), on the face of it the project seems, well, unobjectionable. A person might think, "If the Lab School wants it so badly, it must be good for the kids, right? And a school next door will at least be quiet at night..."

My blog post is mostly editorializing, but Asher Klein of the Maroon has a clean, factual review of the meeting here.

rdb said...

I agree it would be nice to know what thoughts (if any) the U has about the redevelopment of Stony Island between 59th and 56th. It does seem a shame that such a seemingly great location is such a snoozer. I can't get over how nice it would have been to have a hotel, a couple of restaurants, and a couple of bars right there... But you can say the same for vitually all of East Hyde Park. We lived in Regents Park for awhile in 2005, and while the transportation linkages were great on that side of the tracks, there sure weren't the kind of lifestyle amenities one would expect from an exclusive, lakefront, high-density population area.

Having said that, I'm glad VH residents have been more or less receptive to the possibility of the ECC on Stony. It's not the BEST use of the DH spot, IMO, but at least it's A use.

Richard Gill said...

Good questions, above, but it's time for me to be old and crusty again. There's stuff the public should be able to review, and there's stuff that nobody has to let them see.

Openness is a matter of how a proposed project is presented for public discussion and review. Openness does not preclude a private organization and its benefactors from first deciding what they want, especially if it's on their own property. The public can decide whether or not it likes the proposal, request changes, accept it, or outright oppose it. After that, it may get built anyway, unless some economic, political or legal roadblock prevents it.

In the case of the proposed Early Childhood Center, the public's right of review stops at the project's potential impact in the community. (The "public" includes the Alderman). Whether or not locating the ECC on Stony Island is good for the Lab School is the University's business. How the school manages its operations, logistics and education delivery is its own affair. Does anybody really believe the University would deliberately put the ECC on Stony Island if it didn't look like the right thing for the school and its students? Does anybody think the University would propose that location, just to use that location, if they thought it would be detrimental to the surrounding community? They are not stupid.

As to why there were not more questions at the meeting about the project's effect on education—I would guess that most parents would discuss this personally with the administration, not out in public. That's what I'd do.

Elizabeth Fama said...

...the public's right of review stops at the project's potential impact in the community.

I should probably have stated that all of the opinions I offer (even on this blog) about the suitability of the Stony location for the ECC are offered as a Lab parent, not just as a member of the public. (As a member of the public with no investment in the Lab Schools, I might take RDB's stance that anything is better than the current abandoned building.) That said, the meeting was billed as my chance as a Lab parent to review the project, ask questions, and offer concerns. They do seem to be quite open in their representation of the project; I was really just expressing my sense that the appeal for our participation in the exploration process didn't feel fully candid. Perhaps "openness" is the wrong word for that, though.

Does anybody really believe the University would deliberately put the ECC on Stony Island if it didn't look like the right thing for the school and its students? Does anybody think the University would propose that location, just to use that location, if they thought it would be detrimental to the surrounding community?

Of course the University can build as it likes, and of course the ECC won't be detrimental to the block, but it also won't be the best use of the space. Again, that's an opinion, not a commandment to use the property the way Beth Fama says. But that's the point of blogs -- to discuss things in an opinionated way.

I do think the U of C has made building mistakes in the past, so I don't agree with your statement that if they've settled on this plan, it's right for the Lab Schools. And while the plan is not bad for the community, and given that the much-needed hotel/restaurant/bar can't happen, I think my proposed residential uses are better!

WoodLawn Jack said...

From the Maroon's coverage of the DH/White Lodging thing . . .

"Neighborhood residents said their concerns about the preservation of the building, traffic and noise concerns, and the non-unionized status of White Lodging garnered little response from the University or White Lodging."

New School:
Preserve hospital--CHECK
No change in traffic or noise--CHECK
Site used by unionized employees of the Lab School--CHECK

Lightningrodd said...

Let's make a general assumption that the university isn't stupid. Remember that the lab school is private and therefore depends on tuition dollars. Therefore the school wouldn't be stupid enough to do anything that threatens that revenue, unlike a public school which has a captive market. If parents don't like the ECC and lab school they have options(St. Ignatius, Parker, Latin, etc). If they decided to split the schools, assume they have a good reason. Some of the comments refer to the logistical problems that parents might face if they have to drop kids off at both sites. Are you kidding me? the sites are like 4-5blks apart, i guess some people assume that they're entitled to a school within a 1000ft of their house. I slightly disagree w/ Gill, because university needs to sell the idea only to parents(tuition payers). However, the idea that they need to have public(non-tuition payers) input is ridiculous for the reasons that Gill states.

GlassHospital said...

I must say I find it ironic that a HPP blogger is making arguments (albeit fairly strong and convincing ones) against changing/improving/updating a neighborhood institution.

Plus ca change...

Richard Gill said...

"New school:
Preserve hospital--CHECK"

I don't think so. Based on what the U of C has said thus far, they see no purpose in saving the hospital building. The reasons given are economic, structural, architectural, and overall utility and suitability.

I wish they would just demolish the lugubrious old building, so it is gone and out of the picture. Arguments about preservation and rehabilitation are red herrings that only serve to distract from the main task at hand: putting a useful, attractive and safe facility on the site.

Elizabeth Fama said...

@GlassHospital: au contraire, mon ami. I'm all for change, and if the Lab Schools wants a new ECC, that's fine with me. I'm only disagreeing about where it should be built!

@lighteningrodd: This has nothing to do with logistical entitlement. I worry that this plan will increase the driving culture of the school. That will have a lot of unplanned effects, from things as small as how much and what kinds of informal interactions parents have within the school community, to things as large as how this supposedly "green" building will actually affect the environment.

@Dick Gill: I think Woodlawn Jack was being sarcastic. He's saying that the stated reasons for opposing the hotel have also not been met with this new ECC plan (e.g. the building is NOT being preserved), and yet the neighbors are apparently OK with it this time.

WoodLawn Jack said...

I was definitely being snarky--I however don't actually know whether the lab school teachers are unionized or not; I just assume like most private schools that they are not. (Admittedly comparing hotel employees to private grade school teachers may be like comparing fish to oranges.)

All that aside--personally I think the school plan is a great under utilization of the DH site. I also think that building on the soccer field and keeping the school together sounds better--although it keeps the traffic problem.

However I also completely agree that the school location and land use is something that should be largely up to the land owner and the parents of students. **If** The U decides to build the school on the DH site I'd sort of think it is because they have given up on developing that spot, which I also think means the rest of that street is essentially dead as far as turning it around to medium to light commercial/retail use.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Woodlawn Jack -- 1) the Lab School teachers are unionized. 2) I think traffic on 59th will be increased by a Stony ECC because families that currently walk to school but who have children above and below grade 2 will all begin to drive their kids to school. 3)I met with a University administrator on Thursday, and it was clear from our conversation that revitalizing Stony Island between 56th and 59th is not a current priority. The U. is extremely focused on revitalizing 53rd Street. In fact, anything you might suggest for the DH site that's a better use than a school is something the U. would rather see on 53rd Street.

Since as a Lab parent I'd prefer the new ECC to be on the existing campus (mostly for cultural and pedagogical reasons, and to promote a walking/biking culture as much as possible), I think they should tear down the DH building, put in a parking lot for the moment (that would make Lab teachers happy) and sit on it for 10 years until they figure out the best use for it and are ready to think about Stony Island as a whole.

WoodLawn Jack said...

The teachers being unionized really messes up my first post and it is no wonder R. Gill mistook me as serious.

And I pretty much completely agree with all of your points including that the U is going to let 56th-59th rot for 10 years or more (not quite what you said but . . .).

As far as the DH site the big problem is the only things that will work there require a "captive" audience. I don't think parking would work there as they seem to have scrapped the proposed lot on 61st--with a hotel out of the picture and zero hopes of attracting restaurants because the neighbors hate booze there seem to be only a few options left.

Currently the university seems to be tying itself in knots trying to deal with student transportation because there is absolutely nothing of interest near the school. Because of that woodlawn and ellis are probably two of the most messed up streets in chicago with all the buses needed on essentially residential streets. (I'm sure one of the transportation geeks can point out more messed up streets.)

Despite that the U has decided to focus on 53rd street which will be the focus of local transportation. Which means anything at DH must essentially be a non-university subsidized destination. If it weren't surrounded by HP a big box store would probably be the most obvious candidate--there is probably enough room for two big box stores, it doesn't compete with other HP retail, and driving is easy from all directions.

youknowwho said...

Correcting the Record,

As the design architect for the reconstruction of the Lab School campus, including the proposed ECC building on Stony Island, I am very concerned and interested in Ms. Fama's analysis of our plans.

She has stated in this blog and at a community meeting a few months ago that we have cited the Google Early Childhood Center as a model for our designs. She has tried to discredit our whole endeavor due to her statements that the yearly tuition at these centers is $57,000/year.

When Ms. Fama made this statement, I have to admit that I was taken aback, realizing that I did not know what the tuition was at the Google centers. But since Google is a major client of ours, I wrote the head of facilities and inquired about the tuition. It turns out that the tuition ranges from a low of $1,700 per month to a high of $1,900 per month.

So Ms. Fama's statements on this point are sadly inaccurate. And of course this brings into question her other "facts."